Do you always use your lucky blue pen on an exam? Maybe you should switch to red.

University of British Columbia (UBC) researchers tested 600 people on detail-oriented tasks (such as proofreading) and creative tasks (such as brainstorming). They did better on the detail-driven tests when the background on their computers was red, and better on the creative tests when the background was blue, according to results published in today's Science Express.
Even if most of us associate red with danger and blue with tranquility, the link between color and cognitive performance isn’t as obvious as it sounds, says study co-author Julia Zhu, an assistant professor of marketing at UBC. "People are very unaware of the different effects of color: They always think blue will help them do better," Zhu tells "If the task is requiring detailed attention, go with red, but if it's asking you to think outside the box, blue will help."

The findings complement those of University of Rochester psychology professor Andrew Elliot, who published research in 2007 showing that people who saw red before an IQ test performed worse, possibly because of the negative association of red with teachers' markups of their work. The idea is that — at least in achievement situations — red reminds us of mistakes, and we want to avoid them. Having red in our environment, then, may inhibit our creative juices, because we're so focused on avoiding errors, says Markus Maier, an assistant professor of social and health psychology at Stony Brook University in New York.

"The attention can be good for detection tasks and bad for more complex-solving tasks," Maier says. "If you have to solve a very complicated problem, that focus on attention hurts you, because you should look broader but you cannot."

Context matters, though. Last year, Elliot showed that men were more attracted to women wearing red than to those clad in other colors. You might say, then, that in the romance realm, red is a performance enhancer.

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