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Color Me Creative

5 February 2009 (All day)
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Mehta and Zhu et al., Science

Selling point. Matching the color to the message might make advertisements more effective, a new study suggests.

If you're thinking of hiring a tax accountant, you might want to note the color of his office. According to a new study, the color red can improve performance on detail-oriented tasks--a desirable thing if your goal is an accurate return. However, if you're hoping to pare down your tax bill with any possible deductions, no matter how far-fetched, you might look for an accountant with a blue office--that color boosts creativity, the researchers report.

Previous research on how color affects cognition has yielded inconsistent findings, says Rui (Juliet) Zhu, a consumer psychologist at the University of British Columbia in Vancouver, Canada. Some studies find that red enhances cognition, for example, while other studies suggest the opposite. Zhu suspected this might be because the work didn't pay enough attention to which types of cognition were being affected. Red might enhance performance on some tasks, she reasoned, while impairing performance on others.

To investigate, Zhu and graduate student Ravi Mehta manipulated the background color on a computer screen while volunteers, mostly undergraduate students, performed a variety of tasks. For those that required attention to detail--such as proofreading a list of addresses--participants were slightly more accurate when the background was red, compared to blue or white.

Blue, on the other hand, stimulated creativity. When subjects were asked to name as many uses for a brick as they could think of in a minute, they came up with more creative responses (such as "to use it as a scratch post for animals") and earned higher creativity scores from a jury of their student peers when the background was blue, Mehta and Zhu report online today in Science.

Zhu thinks the results reflect the different associations conjured by red and blue: Thanks to its connection to stop signs, red ink, and blood, red alerts us to danger and mistakes, signaling the need to be vigilant. Blue, on the other hand, may put people in a more creative mindset because of its more tranquil associations with sea and sky.

The practical implications of the study could be far-ranging, says Kathleen Vohs, a psychologist at the University of Minnesota, Twin Cities. For example, the researchers showed that volunteers who viewed two versions of a fake camera ad--one that featured detailed images of the camera's features and accessories, and one that featured more creative photos (see picture)--rated the first ad more favorably when it appeared on a red background and the second one more favorably when it appeared on a blue background.

Vohs says the findings might also extend to the workplace, where employers could consider color schemes that foster creativity in the advertising department, for example, or heighten attention to detail in accounting.

But Andrew Elliot, a psychologist at Rochester University in New York state, isn't ready to repaint his office just yet. He's concerned that the authors trusted computer software to generate red and blue backgrounds with equal lightness and saturation. It's possible that differences in the lightness or saturation of the red and blue backgrounds--rather than the different hues themselves--could account for the findings, Elliot says. "I think the authors have done very interesting work," he says. "But it may not actually be hue that they are studying."

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