Red and blue states (of mind)

When it comes to color, we all have our likes and dislikes.  I, for one, am certain there is a purpose for mauve, I just haven’t figured out what it is.  And we are all, appropriately, aware that the colors around us affect our mood.   There is some interesting new research on exactly how the colors red and blue affect us.

Science magazine just published a study of 600 people to determine whether performance varied when people saw red or blue.  The subjects were given computer tasks to do when the screen backgrounds were red, blue or neutral.  Folks seeing red did better on tests that demanded attention to detail, like recall or spelling or punctuation.  Those looking at blue screens did better at creative tasks like creating toys from shapes or inventing creative uses for a brick.

The study was conducted by the business school at the University of British Columbia.  Juliet Zhu, an assistant professor who worked on the study said, “If you’re talking about wanting enhanced memory for something like proofreading skills, then a red color should be used. “  But for “a brainstorming session for a new product or coming up with a new solution…then you should get people into a blue room.”

Anthropologists from Durham University in England found that in the 2004 Olympic games, when evenly matched athletes competed, those wearing red won over those wearing blue 60% of the time.  In a 2008 study at the University of Rochester, men considered women in photographs with red backgrounds or wearing red shirts to be more attractive than women with other colors (although not more likeable or intelligent).

In 2006, the Architectural Digest Home Design Show set up cocktail parties in three rooms of different colors (but with identical furnishings).  The major paint companies (Pantone, Benjamin Moore, Sherwin-Williams and DuPont) submitted colors  they considered appropriate for entertainment, dining or relaxation and a red, yellow and blue common to each was chosen for each room.  The results? More people chose the yellow and red rooms but those in the blue room stayed longer (and moved around less).  Red and yellow guests were more active and social and although red guests reported feeling thirstier and hungrier, it was the yellow guests that ate twice as much.  The blue guests ringed the perimeter while the red and yellow guests clustered in the middle.

It may be that we unconsciously perceive red as a symbol of danger and become more cautious.  In a study at the University of Michigan, students taking IQ tests with red covers didn’t score as highly as those with green or neutral colors.  Given a choice of questions, students with red covers chose easier questions.

The matching of red with danger and blue with calm plays out in advertising.  Research shows there’s more appeal when product details or avoidance activities (cavity prevention) have a red background and positive actions (tooth whitening) have a blue background.

So why mention this?  First, I’m always fascinated with whether scientific research backs up (or denies) what we think is true.  Secondly, the more we know about how the things around us affect us, the more we can choose whether to be affected by them (Just how did that advertising manipulative us?).  Lastly, and most importantly, I contend that our homes are where we are most ourselves and we should decorate them to make ourselves most comfortable but an important part of that is making those who visit us more comfortable too.  Maybe it is also important to pick our colors with consideration to the task and what we are going to do in the room.  Even so, I’m not painting my home office red.