Coloring our perception: blue for creativity, red for safety
Different colors can affect our performance at different tasks, according to new research published in Science. The color red improves risk avoidance—does this mean it's time to paint the inside of nuclear power stations bright crimson?
By Jonathan M. Gitlin | Last updated February 5, 2009 1:00

Colors can have a profound effect on our behavior and cognitive performance. This much has been known for a while, but there has always been disagreement among scientists as to just what effect different colors have on the human mind. Now a paper in Science this week adds some new data to the debate, with findings that suggest blue increases creativity, whereas red enhances attention to detail and reduces risk-taking. This latter finding that will come as cold comfort to the legions of (ex-)Starfleet redshirts who found out the hard way that being an unknown actor on an away mission usually meant a one-way trip.

The study, from Ravi Mehta and Juliet Zhu at the University of British Columbia, involved six individual studies that tested cognitive task performance. Most of the six studies were administered via computers, and the subjects were presented with a red, blue, or neutral-colored background. The first involved solving a series of anagrams, some of which related to avoidance motivation (such as "prevent'), others to approach motivation ("adventure") and the final third were neutral ("computer"). Reaction times were measured, with shorter reaction times in a particular word category suggesting that color enhanced the performance. The subjects given a blue background fared better with the approach-related anagrams, whereas the red group were significantly better at the avoidance-related words, with no difference observed for the neutral group.

Next, the participants were shown pairs of brands, with one brand in each pair highlighting a distinct quality; one example would be a pair of car brands, one focused on style and performance (approach motivation) and the other safety and accident prevention (avoidance motivation). When presented on a blue background, the subjects displayed a preference for the approach-focused brands, and vice versa for the red background.

Yet another test involved studying a list of words and then attempting to recall them after a 20-minute break. The red group fared significantly better than the blue group at remembering the words correctly. Next up was a creative task, where participants were asked to think of as many uses for a brick as possible within 60 seconds. Although there was no difference in the number of uses between red, blue, or neutral colors, the blue group came up with more creative uses, as determined by a group of judges. Further tests showed that red backgrounds improved performance on tasks such as proofreading, and blue backgrounds improved results of creative thinking tests.

The data are rather interesting in that they have implications for the way we go about designing or decorating the spaces we inhabit, not to mention the fact that marketing types are bound to take note. As I survey the beige walls of the research lab I'm currently occupying, I can't help but wonder whether or not a shade of blue might be more conducive to novel ideas (although perhaps the inside of the fume hood ought to be painted scarlet). It's also interesting to consider that, now that Ars comes to you on a white rather than reddish background, the change could affect the way you take in what you read here.

The study was published online today in ScienceExpress.

Science, 2009. DOI: 10.1126/science.1169144