For a Creativity Boost, Go Hang Out in a Blue Room

By Eliza Strickland | February 6, 2009 10:41 am

blue and redWhen you need to brainstorm ideas for a big project, get yourself to a room that’s painted blue. But when it’s time to proofread the final product, find a red room. Those are the implications of a fascinating new study that measured the effect that colors have on cognition. Researchers found that red can make people’s work more accurate, and blue can make people more creative [The New York Times]. Since people associate red with danger, it primes them to proceed with more caution and diligence, Zhu reasons, while blue’s oceanic connotations put them in a more adventurous mood.

Researcher Juliet Zhu decided to tackle the topic because previous studies had come up with inconsistent findings. Some studies had found 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 [ScienceNOW Daily News].

In the study, published in Science [subscription required], researchers first gave volunteers a battery of cognitive tests, including proofreading, memorizing lists of words, designing a toy, and thinking up uses for a brick. When the background color on the computer screen was red, the volunteers did better on the proofreading and memorizing tasks, while a blue background prompted them to think up more ideas on the second two tasks.

Zhu thinks the phenomenon is a result of learned associations. Because we learn early that red means to avoid danger, maybe it’s slowing us down in detail-oriented tasks so we can do them better — things like memorizing, proofreading, reading warning labels, concluded Zhu…. But people associate blue with sky, freedom, peace, maybe sparking a feeling of exploration than in turn enhances creativity. “It’s really this learned association with these colors that drive these different motivations,” Zhu said [AP].

Marketers should take note of another aspect of the study in which the researchers made two different versions of a camera ad–one focused on the camera’s features, while the other displayed beautiful travel photos. The test subjects were more likely to rate the technology-focused ad favorably when it was on a red background, while a blue background boosted the second ad’s ratings.

Image: flickr / twoblueday

  • Damian

    Did they check what effect gray cubicle walls had on performance? Surely that’s the biggest boost; hundreds of thousands of corporate managers can’t be wrong.

  • Mister Jim

    This article is worthless. Why? For all we know the study has no “statistical Power.” In other words, there was a difference between groups, but the groups might only comprise 10 people each. Such studies are exploratory or pilot but always distrust any study that does not say X number of subjects in each group. Don’t people learn this in school any more? Maybe it makes no difference anyway because if they hear it on TV or Oprah cites it, well then, it must be so!

    Ask yourself how many of the studies you’ve heard in the past twenty years on TV have held up (been replicated) over time so that they are now accepted knowledge by experts in the fields? ….Few. Always ask “How many subjects were in each group?”

  • wordelangelo

    Well, I live in a creative world. Instead of painting a room blue and another red, I might get me some truly blue and red-tinted eyeglasses and study the effects of wearing them.

  • Eliza Strickland

    @ Mister Jim: The researchers conducted tests with more than 600 people overall. In most of the individual tests, each group was comprised of 40 to 60 people.

  • Heather todd

    Awesome post,Thanks


Discover's Newsletter

Sign up to get the latest science news delivered weekly right to your inbox!


80beats is DISCOVER's news aggregator, weaving together the choicest tidbits from the best articles covering the day's most compelling topics.

See More

Collapse bottom bar