Monday, February 09, 2009

The unconscious psychology of color.

When I first started the vision research laboratory I ran for 30 years at the University of Wisconsin, I experimented with the color spectrum of the fluorescent lights used over the laboratory benches. Those that had more blue and green, more like natural sunlight, clearly made my students feel more relaxed and creative. This was consonant with psychological studies that had shown reds to have more arousing and blue more calming effects humans as well as other animals. Mehta and Zhu have made some fascinating further observations reported in Science and noted in a NY Times article by Belluck which gives examples of similar studies. Work done against the background color red is relatively more accurate, while with blue it is more creative. Here is a clip from the Mehta and Zhu abstract, followed by a graphic from the NY Times article.
We demonstrate that red (versus blue) color induces primarily an avoidance (versus approach) motivation and that red enhances performance on a detail-oriented task, whereas blue enhances performance on a creative task. Further, we replicate these results in domains of product design and persuasive message evaluation, and illustrate that these effects occur outside of individuals’ consciousness . We also provide process evidence suggesting that the activation of alternative motivations mediates the effect of color on cognitive task performances.


  1. Does anyone have any ideas on an evolutionary basis for this?

    Blue equates more to summer and midday while red with morning, evening and winter but I can't really see how to link these with preferred behaviours. It would be interesting to know if the effects are the same in nocturnal animals and in different climates.

  2. One idea is that red is the color of blood, and seeing blood is usually in an arousing context. Green/blue are more prevalent in forest canopy, where hiding from predators is easier than on the savannah.

  3. Anonymous2:03 AM

    In your post you've mentioned that : "...psychological studies that had shown reds to have more arousing and blue[/green] more calming effects [on] humans as well as other animals. " Though it looks quite intuitive to me, I couldn't find a study about it. Could you please link us to a couple of studies stating that? Thanks.

  4. I have the references back in my files in Madison, but if I enter "color psychology" in the google search box, an overwhelming number of interesting links appear.