Seeing Red


When I was an undergrad, my intro psych professor mentioned research in industrial/organizational psychology indicating that the color red causes people to be happier and more productive, while blue makes people sadder and less productive. Later I was taught that the relationship between color and performance was actually more complex. Specifically, I was taught that colors with higher wave lengths (like red) cause arousal, while colors with smaller wavelengths are soothing. Until a couple years ago, though, I'd never actually read any research on the topic. My knowledge was all hearsay. Then I came across a paper in Nature that seemingly confirmed what I'd heard. In that paper, Hill and Barton1 found that wrestlers (Greco-Roman and freestyle) wearing red tended to win more matches than those wearing blue, controlling for ability. Why does red increase performance in wrestling? Well, here's the Hill and Barton's explanation:

Red coloration is a sexually selected, testosterone- dependent signal of male quality in a variety of animals, and in some non-human species a male's dominance can be experimentally increased by attaching artificial red stimuli.

That sounded good to me, particularly since it confirmed what I'd already heard (repetition makes things seem true; more on that in a future post), but it turns out that I might have been wrong. A paper by Elliot et al. published in the February issue of the Journal of Experimental Psychology: General presents findings that directly contradict the belief that red improves performance2. And the evidence they present is pretty convincing. At least it shows that the relationship between color and performance is much more complex than red = happiness/dominance/arousal, blue = sadness/calm.

After reviewing what turns out to be a relatively sparse literature on color and performance, and arguing that the findings in that literature are generally confused and even contradictory, Elliot et al. develop a new hypothesis. I'm going to let them describe their reasoning:

Achievement contexts are situations in which competence is evaluated and both positive outcomes (i.e., success) and negative outcomes (i.e., failure) are possible. We propose that in such contexts, red is associated with danger, specifically, the psychological danger of failure. This association is presumedto be the product of multiple sources. Most specifically and directly, the repeated pairing of red with mistakes and failures that is countered by most children in the education system (e.g., incorrect answers marked with red ink) teaches them to associate red with failure in achievement contexts. This association is bolstered and elaborated over time by the link between red and danger in other contexts in which negative possibilities are salient, such as the red of stoplights, the red of fire alarms, and the red of warning signs. Furthermore, it is even possible that these learned associations emerge from a deeply ingrained predisposition across phylogeny to interpret red as a signal of danger in competition contexts(e.g., the superiority, aggressiveness, or attack readiness of an opponent. That is, the use of red to mark errors, warn of negative possibilities, and so on in society may emerge from a biologically based tendency to view red as a danger signal. Thus, through associative processes that may themselves be embedded in deeply ingrained proclivities, red comes to function as a danger cue in achievement contexts, signaling the possibility of failure. (p. 156)

If red does in fact make people more conscious of failure, it may cause them to be motivated not to fail (rather than motivated to succeed). This sort of motivation has long been known to decrease performance levels for a variety of reasons (not the least of which is the anxiety that comes with worrying about failure). So we might expect, then, that exposure to the color red will actually decrease performance.

To test this hypothesis, Elliot et al. conducted a series of six experiments that pitted red against green (red's "chromatic contrast," and the go color in stoplights) and neutral colors (black, white, and gray) in achievement contexts. In the first experiment, participants completed several anagram problems. After a practice phase which gave the experimenters an indication of participants' anagram-solving ability, participants completed a 15-problem anagram test. At the top of each page of the test, the experimenters had written a "participant number" in either red, green, or black ink (each participant saw the number in the same color on all of his or her test pages). Participants were instructed to check this number on each page to make sure it was the same one throughout the test, thus insuring that they were actually exposed to the color.

When Elliot et al. compared performance on the anagram test for participants who'd seen red, green, or black participant numbers, they found that, controlling for ability, participants who'd seen the red numbers did consistently worse (4.5 out of 15 correct) than participants who'd seen green and black numbers (both between 5.5 and 6.0 out of 15). Subsequent experiments using different neutral colors (gray and white), matching red and green on relevant color dimensions like saturation and value, and using analogy problems (W:X::Y:_) instead of anagrams.

Interestingly, this effect on performance was not due to conscious differences in attitudes about the test. That is, in subsequent experiments, participants who saw red during or before the test (in some experiments, the red was placed on the test packets cover sheet, instead of on each page) reported the same level of perceived ability and confidence, on average, as participants who saw green or neutral colors. It appears, then, that the effect of color on performance was occurring below the level of awareness.

In their final two experiments, Elliot et al. tested the regulatory focus aspect of their hypothesis. That is their contention that red causes people to focus on the prevention of failure rather than the achievement of success. Previous research on regulatory focus has shown that when people have a prevention rather than achievement focus and are given the option to avoid a difficult task, they will tend to take that option. So Elliot et al. gave participants instructions that indicated there were two versions of the analogy test they were about to take. One, the difficult version, contained analogy problems that they would have a 50% chance of getting right, and the other, the easy version, contained analogy problems that they would have a 90% chance of getting right. Participants were then told that they could choose the number of analogy problems they would get from each of the two tests (hard and easy), until they reached a total of ten problems. Elliot et al. then looked at whether seeing the color red (this time on the cover sheet of the test) would cause people to choose more easy problems than seeing either green or a neutral color. And that's what they found. Participants with red on their cover sheets chose an average of about 5.6 easy problems, while participants with green or gray cover sheets chose fewer than 4.7 easy problems on average.

In their final experiment, Elliot et al. tested the regulatory focus portion of their hypothesis by measuring participants' brain activity with EEG. Previous research has shown that prevention motivations tend to produce more activity on in the right frontal lobe than in the left. The prediction, then, is that by causing prevention motivation, seeing red will result in more right frontal lobe activation in the right frontal lobe than the left, while green and neutral colors will present roughly the same amount of activation in both hemispheres. And that's what they found. The difference in activation between the right and left frontal hemispheres of the frontal lobe was significantly greater while participants took an IQ test after seeing red than after seeing green or gray.

In sum, then, the results of six experiments indicate that red reduces performance because it is associated with failure, and thus causes people to be motivated to avoid failure rather than to achieve success. How does this jive with the Hill and Barton wrestling study? Well, Elliot et al. argue that in that study, "wearing color and viewing color were completely confounded" (p. 165). That is, the wrestler wearing blue saw red in the uniform of his or her opponent. So the fact that wrestlers wearing red won more matches than those wearing blue could be a result of the fact that those wearing blue were viewing red (and if you've ever watched wrestling, you know that they were viewing it all up close and personal), resulting in increased awareness of the possibility of failure, and thus decreased performance. At the very least, like many previous studies, the Hill and Barton study doesn't say anything definitive about the relationship between color and performance. The Elliot et al. study, however, takes the first step to a definitive statement about that relationship. Since they only contrasted red, green, and neutral colors, hypotheses about the exact reason for red's association with prevention focus are still preliminary. But it seems pretty clear now that red hurts performance, rather than helping it.

1Hill, R.A., & Barton, R.A. (2005). Red enhances human performance in contests. Nature, 435, 293.
2Elliot, A.J>, Maier, M.A., Moller, A.C., Friendman, R., & Meinhardt, J. (2007). Journal of Experimental Psychology: General, 136(1), 154-168.


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before i fully read your post i assumed that red would have some relation with 'warning' and some sort of anxiety actually. perhaps i'm just paranoid? ;-)

My first thought was that red's winning was because of the Russian Alexander Karelin, who utterly dominated for more than a decade.

Do they have any comments about cultural influence? For example, I'm pretty sure that red is "lucky" in Chinese culture; if so, asking Chinese to participate in that sort of experiment *may* not produce the same result.

On the Rorshach, reaction to color cards can vary substantially. In some individuals, the form quality of responses decreases substantially with the introduction of color cards while most individuals are unaffected. And generally, the number of responses per card increases on average with the introduction of the color cards, but individual differences exist. This points to another possible complication in understanding reactions to color--indivdual differences.

If red increases arousal, increases in arousal might improve performance for some individuals but not for others and, in turn, these differences may have an interactional effect with the type of task involved.

I remember reading that Nature article and thought that perhaps there could be an evolutionary response in the form of seeing red on oneself could be likened to seeing blood on oneself and trigger a more desperate struggle, the likes of which can determine close wrestling matches, but of course that would be pure speculation...

By Leukocyte (not verified) on 26 Mar 2007 #permalink

RE red winning more wrestling matches... something doesn't seem right. If red causes productivity increase then the blue wrestler, who is seeing the opponent dressed in red in front of him/her, should have increased productivity. Conversely, the red player, facing a blue opponent, should be more calm...
so - controlling for ability - the blue player should win more often, right?

By Christopher (not verified) on 27 Mar 2007 #permalink

Christopher, read the article.

It's interesting that this effect seems to work at an unconscious level. I wonder if it can be reversed or at least negated, perhaps by assigning it an opposing meaning in a specific context.

Tangentially, perhaps this is an explanation for why people tend to eat red smarties last.