Color My World: Hues that Enhance Thinking

Is your job to detect side-effects of a new experimental drug, scrutinize manufactured parts for defects or something else that requires close attention to detail? Then you might want to pick red chairs, curtains and carpet for your work space. Ditto if you're a student studying for a test: find a room with lots of red. Is your job to brainstorm new product designs, dream up ad campaigns and do something similarly creative? Paint the walls blue. And if you're a student who has to write a paper or poem for this weekend's homework, plan on doing it in a room with lots of blue.

That color affects the way we think is obvious to anyone who has been totally unproductive in a chartreuse room. But for a long time researchers came up with conflicting findings on the precise cognitive effects of being surrounded by particular colors, with some suggesting that red enhances cognitive task performance compared with blue or green, as this study and this one did; others have shown the opposite, finding that blue or green enhance thinking.

Ravi Mehta and Rui (Juliet) Zhu of the University of British Columbia had the bright idea that both sets of findings could be true—that is, either red or blue could boost thinking, but different forms of thinking. In a paper published today in Science, that’s what they report finding. Because of its associations with danger (alert levels), stopping (road signs), mistakes (wrong answers circled in red) and the like, red should induce what psychologists call “avoidance motivation,” meaning people become vigilant and try to avoid risks; that should make them excel on detail-oriented tasks that require careful, focused attention. But blue, associated with openness (the sky), peace, and tranquility (the sea), should induce “approach motivation,” which should make people feel freer to take more risks and explore more—perfect for creativity.

In six studies, the researchers indeed found that exposing people to red or blue (on the background of computer screens) affected different mental abilities differently. When volunteers did a memory exercise, trying to recall 36 words on a list they studied for 2 minutes, those who did it on a red background recalled more correct items than those who did the exercise on a blue background, supporting the idea that red makes people vigilant and detail-oriented. When volunteers were asked to think of as many creative uses for a brick as they could within 1 minute, the color of the screen background had no effect on the total number of uses they came up with, but volunteers who saw a blue background got higher creativity scores from judges (who didn’t know who had which background color). Other tests pointed to the same conclusion: “red led to superior performances on detail-oriented tasks and blue, on creative tasks,” the researchers write.

The findings have obvious implications for real life, such as what color to paint walls in a classroom or lab and what color to use in different business settings. “If the task on hand requires people’s vigilant attention (e.g. memorizing important information or understanding the side effects of a new drug), then red . . . might be particularly appropriate," the researchers write. "However, if the task calls for creativity and imagination (e.g., designing an art shop, or a new product idea brainstorming session), then blue . . . would be more beneficial.”

I'm spending the rest of today picking out paint swatches.