Monday, April 20, 2009

Seeing Red, Feeling Blue

Effect of Color on Cognitive Task Performance
In the recent University of British Columbia study, researchers Mehta and Zhu explored the differences between red and blue in relation to cognitive performance. Their study involved 600 participants who performed various tasks while looking at computer screens, which displayed red, blue or neutral backgrounds. In a task of word recall, they found that participants looking at words against a red screen had a higher rate of accurate word recall than those looking at the blue or neutral screens. In another task, Meha and Shu had participants think of creative ways to use a brick. While all groups had to think of the same number of uses, judges of the study later concurred that participants in the blue screen group found more creative uses for the brick than those in either red or neutral group. From their study, Mehta and Zhu found that the color red enhances performance on tests of recall and attention to detail, while the color blue enhances performance on tests requiring imagination.

Red Enhances Human Performance
In a related study at the Durham University of England, anthropologists Russell Hill and Robert Barton found that the color red enhances performance in competitive sports. As in nature where red is connected to testosterone and masculinity, in the human world male dominance can be influenced by the wearing of red. In their study of Olympic competitions, Hill and Barton found that wearing red is consistently connected with a higher probability of winning (competitors wearing red in boxing, tae kwon do, and wrestling defeated their blue-uniformed opponents about 60% of the time). This study suggests that the evolution of sexual selection, in which red symbolizes dominance, plays a role in human response to color.

Romantic Red
In a study on male physical attraction to women at the University of Rochester, researcher Andrew Elliot and Daniela Niesta found that men who viewed photographs of women wearing red shirts perceived the women as more attractive and desirable, and were more willing to take them on a date and pay for the date, than women wearing blue shirts. Participants were not aware that the influence of color on attractiveness/attraction was being measured in the study, and they indicated that color did not play a role in their rating of the women.

Elliot and Niesta note that:
-Color is a common language within and across species
-The mere perception of color is sufficient to produce affect, cognition and behavior consistent with that meaning.
-Red carries meaning of sex and romance.
-Found in folktales, literature (The Scarlet Letter –Hawthorne), theater (A Streetcar Named Desire), red light districts and red lipstick (which has been used since Ancient Egyptians, 10,000 BCE).
-Red in animals, reddening during mating.

Color and Psychological Functioning
In another study on the effects of red by Elliot from the University of Rochester, he found that even an unconscious awareness of red in a testing scenario affects the ability of the test taker to perform. More specifically, he found that the presence of the color red during testing negatively affects performance. Elliot believes this effect is related to the meanings and specific information that red often conveys, such as a teacher’s red markings on an assignment or a red sign indicating danger. Interestingly, this study seems to contradict Hill’s study on red and Olympic competition. Elliot suggests that a distinction should be made between viewing and wearing red, for it is possible that viewing red caused the blue player to perform badly (as opposed to Hill’s theory that wearing red caused the red player to perform better.)

Spatial Color
Finally, the influence of red, blue and yellow was measured in an experiment conducted by a group of interior designers. In this experiment three identical white rooms, each 18ft x 20ft x 10ft in dimension and containing a bar with twelve white bar stools and four white computers, were “bathed” in either red, yellow or blue light. Guests were then invited to attend a cocktail party in one of the three rooms. The results showed that guests in the yellow room consumed almost twice as much food and drink than those in the other two rooms. In terms of physical interaction, guests in the blue room occupied the perimeter of the space while guests in the red and yellow rooms were far more socially interactive with each other, forming small clusters in the middle of the rooms. These findings suggest that blue may induce more antisocial behavior than red or yellow, and yellow may increase appetite.

These studies on color point to the peculiar relationship between unconscious sensory perception and cognitive functioning.


“Color Study Looks at Effects of Red and Blue,”

“Design: Spatial Color”

Elliot, Andrew & Marcus A. Maier. “Color and Psychological Functioning: The Effect of Red on Performance Attainment.” Journal of Experimental Psychology 136(1): 154-168.

Elliot, Andrew & Daniela Niesta. “Romantic Red: Red Enhances Men’s Attraction to Women,” Journal of Personality and Social Psychology 95(5): 1150-1164.

Hill, Russell A. & Robert A. Barton, “Psychology: Red enhances human performance in contests,” Nature 435 (293)

Mehta, R. & Zhu, R.J. “Blue or red? Exploring the effect of color on cognitive task performances,” Science 323(5918):1226-9.

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