Feb. 5, 2009 -- For those who think people who worry about color schemes are fussy decorator types, think again. New research has shown that certain colors can inspire caution or creativity in problem solving.
"Everybody has a hunch about how color affects our behavior and cognition," said Juliet Zhu, co-author of the study and assistant professor of marketing at the Sauder School of Business at the University of British Columbia in Vancouver, British Columbia. "But there is not much research done in a scientific manner."
Zhu and co-author Ravi Mehta tested more than 600 participants over one year on a variety of problem-solving tasks, including solving anagrams and memorizing lists of words. The tasks were done against either a red, blue or white (neutral) screen, usually on computers.
When presented with a red background, the participants solved tasks that required attention to detail faster than when presented with a blue background.
Conversely, when presented against a blue background, participants offered superior solutions to problems that required a high degree of creativity, such as building a toy out of small parts or the many ways to use a brick.
Previous research on color and cognition often show conflicting results in which either red or blue is shown to enhance performance on cognitive tasks. Zhu and Mehta's efforts to reconcile that conflict led them to divide the cognitive tasks into those that required attention and those that required creativity.
Zhu and Mehta's results suggested that a red background enhances performance on detail-oriented tasks and a blue background enhances performance on tasks that require creative thinking. The study appeared today in Science Express.
Seeing Red, Blue
Mehta, a doctoral student at the University of British Columbia, said they picked red and blue because they were at opposite ends of the color spectrum, in the warmest and coolest color groups, respectively. But red and blue also have strong meanings, or learned associations, attached to them.
Red is often associated with danger and mistakes -- stop signs, for example -- and promotes avoidance behavior. Consequently, people become more alert and detail oriented.
"That is part of being careful," Mehta said.
Blue, on the other hand, is associated with calmness, openness and images of oceans and sky, giving the perception of safety. In a safe environment, people are more comfortable taking risks and exploring creative ideas while solving problems.
For example, when asked to come up with different ways to use a brick, those in the blue group suggested an animal scratching post, chalk or an object in a museum to symbolize hard work.
Participants in the red group, on the other hand, offered suggestions such as using the brick as part of a house or a road or a wall.
When presented with a neutral, white background, Mehta said participant performance fell in between that of the red and blue groups, proving that certain colors can be beneficial, depending on the task.
But Zhu and Mehta's study showed that people are largely unaware of the impact color can have on cognitive ability.
"There are no common cultural expectations about what those colors are gong to do for them," said Ronald Friedman, assistant professor of psychology at the University at Albany, State University of New York, who has researched creativity and was not associated with this study. "People do not have any lay theories [that could make this] a placebo effect."
When participants were told they would be presented with a task that either required attention or creativity, and to select the color they believed would enhance their performance on that task, the participants overwhelmingly chose blue. Some 66 percent of participants chose blue when confronted with a creative task, and 74 percent chose blue when confronted with a detail-oriented task.
"That was the most surprising finding," Zhu said. "People are totally unaware of this effect."
Zhu said this outcome was likely the result of a general preference for blue over red in the population, and that people do not realize that red will, in some cases, enhance their performance more than blue.
Mehta pointed out that further research on colors and cognition could have practical implications, for example, using a red background when filing out tax forms -- a detail oriented task.
Zhu said further research could explore how cognitive responses to color can change depending on the cultural context, in other countries, for example, or as part of athletics.
"Despite the fact that we have these intuitive feelings that environmental cues will affect our behavior, little research has been done," Zhu said.
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