Making Colours Work For You

Sep 10, 2013 1 Min Read

Can colours help us better perform cognitive tasks such as memorising, reasoning and decision- making? A study published in 2009 in the online version of Science magazine has glorious news for us.

Researchers Ravi Mehta and Rui Zhu from the University of British Columbia say that the colour red helps with tasks requiring caution and involving details, while blue improves the performance of tasks requiring creativity.

It’s not the colours themselves that possess the abilities to affect us physically and mentally, however. “The supposition that colours have inherent qualities that can be transferred to the designed environment in order to induce specific moods is not supported by the research,” writes a 2003 report by the Coalition of Health Environments.

Instead, it’s the association that we attach to colours that make the difference. The colour green, for instance, is commonly perceived as calming because of its association with grass, trees and nature in general. For this reason, we observe green being used in environments like libraries and prisons to promote a sense of tranquility.

Red and blue induce different motivations

The study entitled “Blue or Red? Exploring the Effect of Colour on Cognitive Task Performances” focuses only on the primary colours red and blue. Based on the associations to these colours, the researchers postulated that exposure to the colours would lead to different motivations.

“Red, because of its association with dangers and mistakes, should activate an avoidance motivation, which has been shown to make people more vigilant and risk-averse,” writes the report.

“Thus, red, compared with blue, should enhance performance on detail-oriented tasks (i.e., tasks that require focused, careful attention).

“In contrast, because blue is usually associated with openness, peace, and tranquility, it is likely to activate an approach motivation, because these associations signal a benign environment that encourages people to use innovative as opposed to “tried-and-true” problem-solving strategies”.

“Indeed, an approach motivation has been shown to make people behave in a more explorative, risky manner. Thus, blue versus red should enhance performance on creative tasks,” it suggests.

To test their hypothesis, 600 participants were put through different tests, having to answer questions on a computer screen which had backgrounds that were either red, blue or neutral in colour.

Interestingly, participants with the blue background fared better in creative tasks, such as thinking up as many uses for a brick as possible. Those in the red did better in tasks requiring focus and attention, like a memory exercise and proof reading.

In one test, participants were shown drawings of 20 different parts and were asked to use any five parts to design a toy for a child. To some, the parts were presented to them in a red colour. Others were given blue parts. The toys were then assessed by a panel of judges. The judges observed that those given red parts designed more practical and appropriate toys for children. However, they were not as novel and creative as those produced by participants who were provided blue parts.

Try it out

So the rationale seems to be that red, being commonly associated with danger and mistakes, makes us more “risk-averse”. As a result, we would tend to give more care and attention to the task as we try to avoid errors and mistakes.

Fascinatingly, humans are not the only ones who seem to experience this avoidance effect from the colour red. In a study published in Psychological Science in 2011, macaques displayed an aversion to accepting food from humans that wore red.

The same reluctance was not observed when they took food from those who wore green and blue t-shirts. Researchers say that red seems to project a sense of dominance, causing the macaques to retreat, avoid or submit.

On the contrary, the tranquil connotations of blue give us a sense that it is safe to explore and let our minds go on an adventure. Breaking convention seems less treacherous an act, and boundaries less steadfast. So the colour blue could help in idea generation sessions, or tasks that require creativity.

Of course, our work environments are not so clean-cut. There are a multitude of environmental factors that can affect cognitive task performance. Noise, light, your current emotional state, even the chroma (saturation) and value (brightness) of the colour can have an impact.

For those wishing to reproduce the exact colours used in the study, for the computer-based test, they used red with a hue of zero, saturation at 240, lightness at 120. The blue used had a hue of 160, saturation of 240, lightness of 120. But give this a try and see for yourself. In tasks where you need to free your mind to think up new ideas, inject some blue into your environment- whether it be a cool blue room, or a notebook with blue pages.

In tasks requiring focus and attention, try changing your desktop background to red, or sitting near a red wall. Just don’t stalk your colleague wearing red around the office – that may lead to another avoidance effect.

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Lily Cheah is a former head of Enterprise at Leaderonomics. Prior to that role, she was editor of (Ldotcom) and also was part of a special projects team in Leaderonomics. She believes that small details play a big part in huge successes, including always explaining “why”. She is a senior leader in HR today.

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