+ Creatives Need a Blue Room, Fact Checkers Need Red

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Pam Belluck’s article in the NY Times reports a study on the Web site of the Journal Science which suggests that color can influence performance and emotions in very particular ways.

Researchers at the University of British Columbia conducted tests with 600 people to determine whether cognitive performance varied when people saw red or blue.

Participants performed tasks with words or images displayed against red, blue or neutral backgrounds on computer screens.

Red groups did better on tests of recall and attention to detail: remembering words, for example, or checking spelling and punctuation.  Blue groups did better on tests requiring imagination, such as inventing creative uses for a brick, or creating a toy from shapes.

Says researcher Juliet Zhu, assistant professor of marketing at the business school at the University of Bristish Columbia, “If you’re talking about wanting enhanced memory for something like proofreading skills, then a red color should be used.”

But, she continues, for “a brainstorming session for a new product or coming up with a new solution to fight child obesity or teenage smoking, then you should get people into a blue room.”

These questions have fascinated scientists for many years.

In a study on Olympic uniforms, anthropologists at Durham University in England found that evenly matched athletes in the 2004 Games who wore red in boxing, tae kwon do, Greco-Roman wrestling and freestyle wrestling defeated those wearing blue 60 percent of the time. 

Researchers suggested that red, for athletes as for animals, subconsciously symbolizes dominance.

Perhaps similar in a way was a 2008 study from the University of Rochester.  Men who looked at photographs of women with red backgrounds, or wearing red shirts, found them more attractive than women with other colors — although not necessarily more likeable or intelligent.

A cocktail party study in which interior designers, architects and scientists built “bars” in red, blue or yellow model rooms found that more people chose yellow or red rooms;  those in the blue room stayed longer. 

Red and yellow guests were more social and active.   And while red guests reported feeling hungrier and thirstier than others, yellow guests ate twice as much.

It is thought that color may affect cognitive performance because of the moods they engender.

“When you feel that the situation you are in is problematic, ” says Norbert Schwarz, a psychology professor at the University of Michigan, “you are more likely to pay attention to detail, which helps you with processing tasks but interferes with creative types of things.”

Many people link red to problematic things, like emergencies, or X’s on failing tests, say experts.  “Associations to red — stop, fire, alarm, warning — can be activated without a person’s awareness, and then influence what they are thinking about or doing,” says John A Bargh, a psychology professor at Yale University.  “Blue seems a weaker effect than red, but blue skies, blue water are calm and positive, and so that effect makes sense too.”

Andrew Elliot of the University of Rochester (whose study used photographs of women in red mentioned above), says blue’s positive emotional associations were considered less consistent than red’s negative ones.

And it also might matter whether the color dominates someone’s view — as on a computer screen — or is only part of what is seen.  He says that in the Science study, brightness or intensity of color, and not just the color itself, might have had an effect.

Some previous cognitive studies found no effect from color, although some used mostly pastels or less distinctive tasks.  One found that students taking tests did better on blue paper than on red, but Dr Schwarz said the study used depressing blue and upbeat red.

The conclusion of the Science  study — that red makes people more cautious and detail oriented — coincides with Dr Elliot’s finding that people shown red test covers before IQ tests did worse than those shown green or neutral colors.

And on a different test, people with red covers also chose easier questions.  IQ tests require more problem-solving than Dr Zhu’s memory and proofreading questions.

When Dr Zhu’s subjects were asked what red or blue made them think of, most said that red represented caution, danger or mistakes; blue symbolized peace and openness.  Subjects were quicker to unscramble anagrams of “avoidance related” words like “danger” when the anagrams were on red backgrounds, and quicker with anagrams of positive, “approach related” words like “adventure” when they were on blue backgrounds.

The study also tested responses to advertising.  It found that advertisements listing product details or emphasizing “avoidance” actions like cavity prevention held greater appeal on red backgrounds.  Those using creative designs or emphasizing positive actions like “tooth whitening” held more appeal on blue.

When participants were asked whether they believed that red or blue would improve performance, most of them said blue for both detail-oriented and creative tasks.  Perhaps, says Dr Zhu, that is because most people prefer blue.

It should be noted that the study did not involve different cultures, like China, where red symbolizes prosperity and luck.

source: Pam Belluck’s article in the NY Times on 2/6/09.  www.nytimes.com

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