Q: Red and blue are two bold and common colors in fashion. Do they affect how I think or behave?
A: Yes, there is evidence that these two colors have concrete effects on our thinking and behavior. They can be used to optimize our performance on two different kinds of tasks: red is optimal for simple, detail-oriented tasks, while blue is better for complex and creative tasks.
Red and blue are everywhere, and fashion is no exception.
You’d be hard-pressed to find two more common colors than red and blue.
These colors may be common because they enhance certain types of thinking.
Red is often associated with excitement, danger, violence, aggression, and sex.
Blue is often associated with relaxation, peace, and openness.
Red and blue are also the result of different light wavelengths.
Red is a “long-wave” color, while blue is a “short-wave” color.
Do these color associations really have an effect on various types of performance? Can this be shown in a laboratory?
If red is all about danger and excitement, maybe it’s best for quick, exciting, bold moves, while blue is better for complex tasks that require clear, open, creative thinking?
These questions were examined by five Chinese researchers and published in two studies in the journal Frontiers in Psychology in 2016.
First, the researchers wanted to see the effect of blue and red on simple and complex detail-oriented tasks.
The task they chose was proofreading.
In this task, people were asked to examine 20 pairs of alphabetic strings of letters. Each set was either identical, or slightly different.
A participant would simply scan the items and quickly respond to whether the pairs of items were identical or different.
There were complex and simple pairs of items.
Complex items had 50-100 letters, while simple tasks had 20-50.
The background of the pages were either red, blue, or gray.
The researchers recruited 125 college students to perform this task.
They were tested for color-blindness before performing the task.
The researchers simply measured the students’ accuracy on the task.
On the simple task, the students performed best with the red background (around 95% accuracy, compared to around 89% for blue and 88% for gray).
On the complex task, the students performed best with the blue background (around 85% accuracy, compared to 79% and 78% for red and gray).
The researchers found that color could either boost a student’s performance, or failed to boost a student’s performance.
In other words, there was no color that hindered a student or interfered with the task.
Then, the researchers sought to examine the effect of the colors red and blue on creativity.
They recruited 81 college students to do a creativity task called the Remote Associates Test.
In this task, the students were given three words, and were asked to provide a single word that could be combined with all three of the words to make three new words.
For instance, if they were given the words “Shelf” “Worm” and “End,” a correct word could be “book.”
Book can be combined with the three words to make “bookshelf,” “bookworm,” and bookend.”
This is a way to measure creative thinking.
Once again, the pages were colored red, blue, or gray.
And again, the questions were divided into simple and difficult.
The students’ correct answer was recorded and their accuracy was measured.
On the creativity task, the results were slightly different.
For simple creative tasks, blue was the best (around a 5-point boost from the other colors).
For the complex creative tasks, blue was once again the best (another 5-point boost compared to the other colors).
What do we learn about red and blue from these experiments?
Red is the best color to boost performance on simple detail-oriented tasks that require no creativity.
This might be: proofreading, spreadsheets, taking in details, etc.
Blue is the best color for complex tasks, and creative tasks.
This might be: big-picture thinking, thinking about complex problems, and complicated detail-oriented tasks.
It may be useful to match your wardrobe to the task you’ll be doing that day!
Xia, T., Song, L., Wang, T. T., Tan, L., & Mo, L. (2016). Exploring the effect of red and blue on cognitive task performances. Frontiers in Psychology, 7, 1-7. Link: https://journal.frontiersin.org/article/10.3389/fpsyg.2016.00784/pdf