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Effect of Text Colour on Detail-Oriented and Creative Processing
Colour is a significant component of any perceptual and cognitive experience, as it adds richness and depth to otherwise “grey” experiences—from parents of children suffering from achromatopsia, characterised by lack of colour vision and hypersensitivity to light: “I dream of a day when I can show him a rainbow, wave to him from across the playground, watch TV with him without his nose pressed to the screen and show him the horses in the field near our house.” (“Trudi”, n.d.)Colour has run the gamut when it comes to possibilities—whether naming colours is universal or cultural phenomenon and whether difference in colour perception has a biological basis or a sociological one, are some elusive research areas which demonstrate how much dissent characterises colour research (Sternberg & Sternberg, 2011). Despite being a ubiquitous feature of sensory experience, colour research has yet not been fleshed out, with only limited investigation on the influence of colour on the thought and behaviour of individuals. Nonetheless, what limited research is available, highlights that colour is an environmental factor in its own right, which can have a profound effect in certain contexts, including learning and recall.
Research on the influence of colours on recall and memory-based tasks has mixed results. For instance, associational learning in colour psychology has also been investigated; an educational psychology research checked whether the course content and tests printed on same coloured paper had an effect on retrieval. Though there was little evidence of associations being formed in any condition, it was seen that retention was greater for the green condition rather than for red condition (Martinez, Oberle, & Jr., 2010). Hence, much of inquiry in the area has revolved around the influence of warm (red) colours and cool (green or blue) on approach motivation and avoidance motivation. Red has been characterised as a prime for arousal, as demonstrated in a study by Wilson (1966). The mean of red scores were consistently higher than the green scores for physiological measures, skin conductance level and GSR. Moreover, red has the connotation of danger, especially the danger of failure, as a young student is frequently exposed to the pairing of red with mistakes and errors; this may in turn be a consequence of a biologically based tendency to view red as a danger signal. Hence, red is implicated in avoidance motivation—motivation to avoid failure, which ironically can lead to dips in performance (Elliot & Maier, 2007; Lichtenfeld, Maier, Elliot, & Pekrun, 2009). Cool colours, such as blue or green, are expected to have the reciprocal effect, as blue is associated with openness and peace rather than danger (Mehta, 2008) and so, would foster approach motivation—a predilection to solve a problem (Olsen, 2010). In the same, it has also been suggested that red may not necessarily lead to indiscriminate drop in performance, but it may be more relevant to the nature of processing involved—detail-oriented processing, requiring a degree of arousal and carefulness, may be conducive to red colour, while creative processing, requiring a willingness to explore as seen in approach motivation, may flourish with blue (Mehta, 2008; Olsen, 2010).
Much research that has attempted to compare the differential influence of red and blue has not been able to sufficiently satiate the research problem, and remains inconclusive. One research carried out a series of experiments to study the effect of red, green and achromatic colours in the background of the text, on avoidance motivation and approach motivation, of which avoidance motivation was hypothesized to lead to poor intellectual performance. Although the results were not uniform, it demonstrated that participants showed unconscious avoidance motivation in some of the experiments when the background was red in colour, while no significant difference was seen for green and achromatic colours. The researchers attributed the results to both learning based associations of colours to particular messages and concepts, and biologically based proclivities to react to certain colours in certain manners (Elliot & Maier, 2007). Similarly, in another study, people assigned to red colour conditions reported quickly in avoidance-related anagram, recalled more words correctly, with more correct responses in detail-oriented tasks than those who were exposed to blue colour, who reported quickly in approach-related anagrams and scored higher in creative tasks (Mehta, 2008). Another research of the same was unable to find this correlation between red and avoidance motivation, whereas for the secondary hypothesis centring on word valence and performance was also inconclusive (Olsen, 2010).
Other than flaws in research design, other possibilities that render colour psychology so ambiguous at present have also been accounted for. A study by Isarida and Isarida (2007) took into account the phenomena of habituation in colour processing. They carried out four different experiments, each studying context effects of background colour in cognitive processing, particularly free-recall. The results showed that context effects are strongest when the colour of the background is changed frequently, otherwise habituation can take place; nonetheless, pairing of background colour and text does improve free recall, and colour may be functionally different from other contextual effects. Others may suggest contrarily, as in a study by Huchendorf (2007) who gave coloured packets to participants, which contained materials for a recall and mathematical task—since no correlation between colour and task performance was found, it was inferred that exposure time had been too short to influence the participants; another research attributed the failure to find a correlation to the lack of stringent control required in a colour priming experiment (Osteroth, 2012).
A review of literature shows that most of work done has been on the comparison between red and blue colours on avoidance-motivation and approach-motivation, and hence performance of different tasks, though there seems to be little unity or whether red is detrimental to performance in general or happens to enhance detail-oriented processing as shown by Mehta and Zhu(2008). Extending this rationale seems to be the only route to conclusive results in midst of uncertainty. Moreover, research has hinged upon use of colour as a contextual cue, being used in the background of the materials, in the packets given to participants, on cover pages of tests, or as borders of the materials been presented; in essence, no attempt has been made to use coloured text. This may have more logistical reasons than theoretical ones, including the possibility of eye strain caused by exposure to coloured text. Still, it remains an unexplored terrain in this relatively novel branch, and is precisely why this has been taken up in the current study.
Together, the study undertook went on to explore the effects of red, blue and achromatic colours (neutral condition) on performance in detail-oriented processing compared with creative processing. The research study hypothesized that there would be more correct responses to questions pertaining to detail-oriented processing when recalling what was read in red ink, and there would be more correct responses to questions pertaining to creative processing when recalling what was read in blue ink. The independent variable would be the colour of ink used and the dependent variable would be the number of correct responses to questions pertaining to detail-oriented processing and creative processing.
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Elliot, A. J., & Maier, M. A. (2007). Color and psychological functioning. Journal of Experimental Psychology, 136(1), 154-168. doi:0.1037/0096-34188.8.131.52
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Isarida, T., & Isharida, T. K. (2007). Environmental context effects of color in free recall. Memory and Cognition, 35(7), 1620-1629.
Lichtenfeld, S., Maier, M. A., Elliot, A. J., & Pekrun, R. (2009). The semantic red effect: Processing the word red undermines intellectual performance. Journal of Experimental Social Psychology, 45, 1273-1276.
Martinez, J. V., Oberle, C. D., & Jr., J. G. (2010). Effects of color on memory encoding. American Journal of Psychological Research, 6(1), 24-31.
Mehta, R. &. (2008). Blue or red? Exploring the effect of colour on cognitive task performances. Sciences, 7, 1226-1229.
Olsen, J. (2010). The effect of colour on conscious and unconscious cognition(Unpublished Master’s Thesis). Retrieved from http://repository.cmu.edu/hsshonors/72
Osteroth, P. (2012). Seeing red: The effect of colour priming on detail-oriented performance in achievement contexts(Unpublished Master’s Thesis).
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