February 9th, 2009

Study: Colors Red and Blue Boost Brain Performance

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Could increasing productivity in the workplace be just a matter of changing the color scheme? Red and blue boost brain performance, according to researchers at the University of British Columbia (UBC). Red can make people’s work more accurate, and blue can make people more creative, they say. The findings could contribute to the design of ergonomically-enhanced work environments.   

The research, reported by UBC and in the February issue of the journal Science, showed that red boosted performance on detail-oriented tasks such as memory retrieval and proofreading by as much as 31 percent compared to blue. Conversely, for creative tasks such as brainstorming, blue environmental cues prompted participants to produce twice as many creative outputs as when under the red color condition.

“Previous research linked blue and red to enhanced cognitive performance, but disagreed on which provides the greatest boost,” explained Juliet Zhu of UBC’s Sauder School of Business in the UBC news release. “It really depends on the nature of the task.” Zhu conducted the research with UBC Ph.D. candidate Ravi Mehta.

Between 2007 and 2008, the researchers tracked more than 600 participants’ performance on six cognitive tasks that required either detail-orientation or creativity. Most experiments were conducted on computers, with a screen that was red, blue or white.
Experts say colors may affect cognitive performance because of the moods they engender. The UBC researchers attribute the results mainly to learned associations. 

“Thanks to stop signs, emergency vehicles and teachers’ red pens, we associate red with danger, mistakes and caution,” says Zhu, whose previous research has looked at the impact of ceiling height on consumer choices. “The avoidance motivation, or heightened state, that red activates makes us vigilant and thus helps us perform tasks where careful attention is required to produce a right or wrong answer.”

Conversely, blue encourages us to think outside the box and be creative, Zhu said, noting that the majority of participants believed incorrectly that blue would enhance their performance on all cognitive tasks. “Through associations with the sky, the ocean and water, most people associate blue with openness, peace and tranquility,” explained Zhu. “The benign cues make people feel safe about being creative and exploratory. Not surprisingly it is people’s favorite color.”



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