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ChangingMinds Blog! > Blog Archive > 17-Feb-12


Friday 17-February-12

Painting the walls smart

Colour psychology is a serious field of study, as organisations like McDonalds know and appreciate well. If painting your walls a particular shade of red can make any difference how much and how fast people eat, it can be money in the bank.

Despite general wisdom, academic study of the subject has been sometimes inconsistent, for example with conflicting results about whether red is the most beneficial colour for various situations.

Researchers Ravi Mehta and Rui Zhu wondered whether colours were helpful for different types of mental processing and so set out to investigate the efficacy of red vs blue in several different situations..

The basic principle was to use red or blue screen backgrounds whilst giving participants various on-screen tasks. They found that people were more successful with red backgrounds for:

  • Word recall
  • Proof reading
  • Unscrambling anagrams
  • Camera ads with pictures of camera parts

They were better with blue backgrounds for:

  • Creativity (think of things to do with a brick)
  • Remote association (what word relates to 'shelf', 'read' and 'end').
  • Unscrambling sentences
  • Camera ads with pictures of travel locations

In another experiment, subjects were given twenty parts from to use in designing a child's toy. Those given red parts designed toys that were more practical and appropriate, but less original and novel. Whilst those given blue parts produced more creative.

What is the pattern? In particular, how were the people motivated by colour? Overall the researchers found that red leads to a cautious, avoidant mode of motivation, which is helpful for tasks that require attention to detail. Blue, on the other hand, led to an approach-based, exploratory motivational state, which is helpful in creativity.

So why does this happen? Is it nature or nurture? The researchers speculated that it is a culturally-learned effect. In Canada, where the research took place, for example red is associated with danger, restraint and stop signs. Blue is associated with skies and openness and hence leads to more creative, accepting action. Danger causes narrowing of focus and openness with broadening of focus.

The lessons are clear: understand culture and colour associations, then confirm with explicit trials.

Mehta, R. and Zhu, R.J. (2009). Blue or Red? Exploring the Effect of Color on Cognitive Task Performances. Science, 323, 5918, 1226-9

Your Comments

Color influence our behavior. Thus, businesses have to be very keen when choosing the colors to represent the business and the place itself. Like fast food restaurants, red and orange encourages diners to eat quickly and leave. Well, that's exactly what fast food outlets want us to do.

-- Maria E

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