Tuesday, February 10

Chromatic Cognition

Ravi Mehta and Juliet Zhu describe the effects of color on human cognition in a new study published on February 5th. The study began with tests designed to measure avoidance and attraction. Students vehemently avoided red and were strongly attracted to blue. In a follow-up experiment, test subjects given attention-demanding tasks did best when given a red background, and when asked to be creative, they responded best to blue. Below is a graphic showing the results of the study from a The New York Times article about the findings (click here to link to article, click image to enlarge).

Previous research on the cognitive effects of the color red have provided mixed results. Red has been linked to cognitive impairment on IQ tests, but also to improvement on low-demand tasks and clerical work. Red has also been shown to attract people to food and enhance sexual arousal. This study strengthens the link between red and an increase in cognitive ability. When asked to explain why red might be linked to concentration, and blue to creativity, Zhu offered this explaination,
Think about red, and what comes to mind: stop lights, stop signs, danger, ambulances - people want to avoid those things, and that's why they do better on detail-oriented tasks. Blue is the color of the sky, the ocean, safety - when their environment is safe, people are more explorative.
Interestingly, creativity has apparently not been given much consideration in past studies examining the effects of color on cognition. Furthermore, the strength of the link between blue and creativity in this study is far from solid. The score for creativity was not exactly quantitative; when asked to come up with as many creative uses for bricks as possible, the red group actually came up with the same number of responses, suggestions from the blue group were merely graded by a panel of judges to be more creative - so take that result with a grain of salt. The link between red and concentration is much stronger, and supports many previous studies.

As for the implications, Zhu suggests people engaged in creative tasks surround themselves with blue, and people trying to focus should forget about energy drinks, and surround themselves with red (hey look at that, my background is red!). The study also points to the possible consequences associated with unintentional uses of color. According to Stony Brook University psychologist Markus Meier, co-author of a conflicting study that linked red to drops on IQ test scores,
In our university, some professors use different color sheets for different groups during exams…Using them in an unthinking way could produce bad results for some students, and good for others.
It really makes you think about other ways in which colors may be impacting your life - without your knowledge!

Mehta, R and Zhu, J. 2009. "Blue or Red? Exploring the Effect of Color on Cognitive Task Performances." Science, Vol. 324, Issue 5915.


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