Red and Blue: Colors Affect Thinking

Psychologically speaking, colors represent such an important aspect of our environments, and are usually what we dwell upon the most when decorating our places. That’s why it is easy to understand the popularity of research about effects that colors have on people. However, among all there is to learn, I consider a systematic series of experiments based on theory such as this by Mehta and Zhu (2009) a rare, precious find.

Carefully selected colors; photo by IDA Interior LifeStyle

Authors aimed to investigate how red and blue affect performance on tasks that require different thinking processes, and to explain why those colors have those exact effects.

Red building; photo by JanneM

Mehta and Zhu (2009) suggest that color red, through its association with dangers and mistakes (Elliot et al. 2007, according to Mehta and Zhu, 2009), should have the potential to activate prevention focus. According to Regulatory focus theory (by Higgins 1987), individuals who adopt prevention focus perceive their goals as duties and obligations, and vigilantly avoid mismatches to their goals. Since empirical studies involving Regulatory focus theory have revealed  that a prevention focus enhances performance accuracy (Friedman and Forster 2001; Forster et al. 2003, according to Mehta and Zhu, 2009 ), authors took one step further and purposed that red color should enhance performance on detail-oriented cognitive tasks.

Do you expect this color to enhance performance accuracy?; photo by pierre bédat

In contrast, people who  adopt  a promotion focus perceive their goals as hopes and aspiration, and eagerly approach matches to their goals. Since blue is expected to activate a promotion focus, due to its associations to openness and freedom, it should also lead to better performance on creative tasks (since a link between promotion focus and better performance on creative tasks had already been proved, by Forster et al. 2003; according to Mehta and Zhu, 2009).
A series of experiments was conducted in order to provide systematic support to this theorizing.

Associations to openness and freedom; photo by swisscan

First three experiments involved completing tasks on a computer with either red, blue, or neutral (white) background. Subjects completing tasks on red background responded faster to avoidance-related anagrams, recalled more correct words and were more successful at identifying inconsistencies between nearly identical word item pairs (e.g., addresses, names) than those using computers with a blue  or neutral background.

photo by tanakawho

On the other hand, subjects in the blue condition responded faster to approach-related anagrams, preferred more approach-oriented brands (brands that highlight positive attributes), generated more creative uses for a brick and produced more correct responses to problems that required creative thinking (Remote Associates Test by Griskevicius, Cialdini, & Kenrick, 2006) than subjects in red or control conditions.

Milwaukee Art Museum; photo by tanakawho

In the next study (Study 4), subjects were given a single sheet of paper with twenty different parts drawn in either red or blue and asked to draw a design for a child’s toy using five of the parts. Judges evaluated the originality/novelty and practicality/appropriateness of each design on black-and-white copies. Subjects presented with toy parts drawn in blue developed toy ideas that were evaluated as more creative than practical; those presented with red toy parts developed toy ideas that were evaluated as more practical than creative.

photo by SSDG Interiors

In Study 5, subjects were shown advertisements for a camera on a red, blue, or neutral computer screen background. One advertisement showed product information that required detail-oriented processing; the other required creative thinking to understand. Subjects who viewed advertisements on a blue computer background screen preferred the advertisement that required creative thinking. Those who viewed advertisements on a red computer background preferred the advertisement that showed detailed product information.

photo by decar66 {on and off for some weeks}

All these results were consistent with Mehta and Zhu’s (2009) hypothesis that red activated avoidance motivation, thus enhancing performance on detail-oriented tasks, while blue activated approach motivation, thus enhancing performance on tasks requiring creativity.

However, I’m particularly glad that study 6 was included  in this series, since it addressed a meta-cognition issue – answering the question if we aware of these effects on our thinking without scientific research. Seems that this is not common knowledge after all, because most  subjects (74%) believed a blue computer background would help them complete both detail-oriented and creative tasks more than a red computer background. 

photo by tanakawho

A limitation that should be taken into consideration of these findings is their cross-cultural generalizability. The key connecting colors to task performance were common color associations – freedom for blue and danger for red. Since colors have different symbolic meanings in different cultures, it’s reasonable to expect that they would have different effects on thinking.

photo by eqqman

Another question that comes to my mind is a practical one – imagine you want to enhance creative performance in an art studio. How much blue do you need in a room; how significant is that improvement; and is it possible by using too much of one color to produce a counter-effect?

photo by IDA Interior LifeStyle


1. Mehta R. and  Zhu R. J. (2009) Blue or Red? Exploring the Effect of Color on Cognitive Task Performances. Science, 323,  5918, 1226-1229. (link)

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