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Color Can Affect How People Think and Act
Date:2/5/2009

aggressive, strong, courageous, frustrated and lustful," said Stephen E. Palmer, a professor of psychology and cognitive science at the University of California, Berkeley.

Zhu agreed, to a degree. "Because we constantly see red paired with ambulance, blood, emergency, it gets our vigilant attention because we want to avoid these things," she said. "Blue skies and oceans are open and peaceful things. Therefore, they encourage a more innovative search of strategy."

But Zhu cautioned that their study looked only at cognitive tasks and that color might play a different role in other settings.

"If we're talking about physical tasks like sports, red can have very different associations -- enthusiasm, success, power, excitement -- so I want to be careful not to generalize to other domains," she said.

"All of our studies were done in North America, so it raises the question whether the same kind of associations, the same kind of effects can be seen in other cultures, so that's a study that merits future research," Zhu said. "If it's a different culture that pairs red with different things, then we're likely to see a different pattern of results."

The researchers wrote that red, compared with blue, "can activate an avoidance (versus approach) motivation and subsequently can enhance performance on detail-oriented (versus creative) cognitive tasks."

But Palmer added a caveat to that. "When you're doing the avoidance words, you'll find that people are fastest with red, but they're almost as fast with white," he said. "It's almost as if blue is having an inhibiting effect on people's solution times."

Color studies have obvious workplace and marketing implications -- and drawbacks. "I would hate it if it turned out that people in education decided that people should be accurate instead of creative and painted all the rooms red," Palmer said. "But if you're a publisher who has a number of proofreaders in a
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