Psychologists have known for some time that colours can affect cognition, but research in the area has produced contradictory results. For example, some studies have shown red to be beneficial while others have found the opposite.
In a series of six experiments, they’ve now demonstrated that red provokes a cautious, avoidant mode of motivation, which is beneficial for tasks that require attention to detail. By contrast, blue provokes an approach-based, exploratory motivational state, which is conducive to creativity. The effects are thought to occur via the meanings we learn to associate with different colours – for example, in many cultures red is of course associated with danger and the command to stop. This study was conducted on a Canadian sample – it’s possible the effects of colour may vary between cultures.
Many of the experiments involved computer tasks, with either a red or blue background appearing on the monitor. These experiments showed that people were better at a word-recall task and a proof-reading task when the screen background was red compared with when it was blue or white. By contrast, participants came up with better quality and more creative ideas for things to do with a brick when the screen was blue, rather than red, and they also performed better at the remote associates test (involves items like: which one word relates to “shelf”, “read” and “end”?).
Evidence that these differences emerged via the effect of colour on motivational state came from participants’ performance in anagram tasks. Mehta and Zhu found that participants working at a monitor with a red background were quicker at unscrambling anagrams related to avoidance, while those with a blue background were quicker to unscramble jumbled words related to approach.
In yet another experiment, participants were given twenty “parts” from which to design a child’s toy. Participants given red parts designed toys that independent judges rated to be more practical and appropriate, but less original and novel. By contrast, participants given blue parts came up with more creative toy designs.
Screen background colour also influenced participants’ preference for two different camera adverts. Participants shown an advert against a red background tended to prefer the advert that showed a montage of product details, whereas participants shown the advert against a blue background preferred a version where the montage showed assorted travel-related images.
Mehta and Zhu said their findings have real life implications. “What wall colour do we pick for an educational facility? What colour enhances persuasion in a consumption context? What colour enhances creativity in a new product design process?” they asked. “Results from this research suggest that, depending on the nature of the task, different colours might be beneficial.”
Ravi Mehta, Rui (Juliet) Zhu (2009). Blue or Red? Exploring the Effect of Color on Cognitive Task Performances. Science. In Press.