Research News


Details are red, concepts are blue. At least, that's what researchers in Canada are saying after conducting what may be the most rigorous study yet of how the colors around us affect our thinking. NPR's Jon Hamilton has the story.

JON HAMILTON: You may have missed this, but the field of color and cognition research has been in turmoil. Color scientists, and there are more than you might think, have clashed over which hues are best for improving mental performance. Some studies say red, others blue. Now, a team from the University of British Columbia has a study that claims to reconcile these contradictory findings. It's just been published online by the journal "Science."

Ravi Mehta, the lead author, says take the color red.

Mr. RAVI MEHTA (Lead author of color study): Red color makes you pay more attention to details and enhances your performance on detail tasks, whereas blue makes you focus on more creative aspects, and enhances your performance on creative tasks.

HAMILTON: Mehta says red triggers what's called an avoidance response in the brain - avoid mistakes, don't take risks. Blue encourages an approach response - relax, be open to new concepts. That conclusion comes from research on more than 600 people. Mehta had them do stuff like solve anagrams or design a child's toy.

One test had people respond to advertising copy for two fictional brands of toothpaste. The first brand was promoted as a way to prevent cavities - in other words, avoid risk. The second promised to make your teeth whiter - a prospect full of possibility. Mehta says people read the descriptions on a screen with a background that was either red, blue or white.

Mr. MEHTA: Significantly more people in red color choose the brand which was good on cavity prevention, whereas significantly more number of people in blue condition choose the product which was better on teeth whitening.

HAMILTON: People who got the white background had no preference.

Mehta says the results explain previous conflicting results about how red and blue affect thinking. Either color can provide an advantage, but only for the right kind of task. Mehta says the new findings aren't just academic. They have implications for everyday activities.

Mr. MEHTA: When you're filing your tax returns, you should actually have, you know, your computer screen set at red color.

HAMILTON: Especially if you might be nominated to run, say, a large federal agency. Scientists who study colors praise the new research. Markus Maier from SUNY Stony Brook says it explains a study he did in which people saw either red or a neutral color before taking an IQ test, which requires creative thinking.

Dr. MARKUS MAIER (State University of New York, Stony Brook): What we found is that those who had previously seen the red color, they did worse in the I.Q. test - verbal or numeric IQ test - than those in the control color conditions.

HAMILTON: Red made them stupid?

Dr. MAIER: It - in other words, you could say red made them stupid. Right.

HAMILTON: Actually, it made them worry about mistakes when they should've been thinking outside the box. But Maier says the new research doesn't resolve all questions about red and blue. For example, there's that study about how color affects men's perception of women.

Dr. MAIER: If the color red is involved, these women are perceived to be more attractive, more sexually desirable than in any control color condition.

HAMILTON: So maybe red doesn't always trigger an avoidance response. And Nancy Stone from Missouri University of Science and Technology says the new research may be hard to apply to real-world decisions, like whether to paint a library red or blue.

Dr. NANCY STONE (Missouri University of Science and Technology): If you really dislike reading or aren't very good at it would that be an approached task for you or might it be an avoidance task?

HAMILTON: Which may be why off-white remains so popular.

Jon Hamilton, NPR News.

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