Seeing red makes people 31% better at detail-oriented tasks like recalling memories or proofreading, research finds.
The colour blue, though, makes people more creative — doubling the number of creative ideas they produce.
Professor Juliet Zhu, study co-author, said:
“Previous research linked blue and red to enhanced cognitive performance, but disagreed on which provides the greatest boost.
It really depends on the nature of the task.”
The research involved over 600 people doing six different tasks, some involving detail, others creativity.
The tasks were done on computers which displayed either a red or blue background to the task.
People did better on the detail-oriented tasks when the background was red.
Professor Zhu explained that this was because of the unconscious signals the colour sends:
“Thanks to stop signs, emergency vehicles and teachers’ red pens, we associate red with danger, mistakes and caution.
The avoidance motivation, or heightened state, that red activates makes us vigilant and thus helps us perform tasks where careful attention is required to produce a right or wrong answer.”
Blue encouraged people to be more creative.
With a blue background, people produced twice as many creative ideas.
Dr Ravi Mehta, the study’s first author, said it was because it made people feel calm:
“Through associations with the sky, the ocean and water, most people associate blue with openness, peace and tranquility.
The benign cues make people feel safe about being creative and exploratory.
Not surprisingly it is people’s favourite colour.”
The studies were aimed at seeing how colours could be used in marketing to sell more products.
Red helped sell a toothpaste, the researchers found, when negative aspects, like cavity prevention, were emphasised.
For more positive, aspirational messages, like tooth whitening, the colour blue helped sell the toothpaste.
About the author
Psychologist, Jeremy Dean, PhD is the founder and author of PsyBlog. He holds a doctorate in psychology from University College London and two other advanced degrees in psychology.
He has been writing about scientific research on PsyBlog since 2004. He is also the author of the book “Making Habits, Breaking Habits” (Da Capo, 2003) and several ebooks:
- Accept Yourself: How to feel a profound sense of warmth and self-compassion
- The Anxiety Plan: 42 Strategies For Worry, Phobias, OCD and Panic
- Spark: 17 Steps That Will Boost Your Motivation For Anything
- Activate: How To Find Joy Again By Changing What You Do
The study was published in the journal Science (Mehta & Zhu, 2009).