People, Places, and Things

The psychology of design: How to create an environment in which you will thrive

Red and Green: For the Holidays, For Every Day

The colors we see have a big influence on us psychologically.

Red and green are everywhere at this time of year. What does science have to say about how these holiday favorites influence our lives?

Andrew Elliot and his colleagues are thoroughly researching how people living in North America respond to red. Their work provides a scientific basis for red’s popularity in outfits during February. Women wearing a standard, typical red or standing against a similarly red background in photos seem more attractive and sexually desirable by men than women not wearing red or near those red backgrounds. The red has no effect on a man's belief in a woman's overall likeability, kindness, or intelligence.

Not surprisingly, whether men are wearing red or standing in front of a red background has an influence on how women respond to photos of them. When men are in red or against red, women find them more attractive as well as more sexually desirable. Sound familiar? Men in red or near red are perceived by women as having higher status than men who aren't wearing or near red. The red does not seem to influence how men perceived other men. Also, and again this will sound familiar, wearing or standing against a red background did not influence how likeable, agreeable, or extraverted a man in an image seamed to women viewers.

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This research should lead to an important question in homes across the planet at this time of year: Who gets to wear the Santa suit tonight?

Looking at green has advantages, too. A team led by Lichtenfeld linked seeing greens to enhanced creative performance.

And seeing red can definitely be a bad thing. Elliott and his fellow researchers have found that when even the tiniest scrap of a classic red, like the ones in teachers’ pens and pencils, is experienced during some sort of competence evaluation situation (such as while taking an IQ test), study participants do not perform as well on the test and are motivated to avoid challenging tasks. The research team hypothesized that these results arise because in our society tests, homework, assignments, papers, etc., are often graded with red pencils and pens, and the associations learned between red and grading - and potential failure - affect subsequent performance and behaviors. Rutchick and his research team found that people using red pens make more errors than people using black ones, which seems to rule out red messages in holiday notes.

Red puts the kibosh on optimal analytical performance, without influencing creative thought, while green seems to spur creatively without affecting our ability to analyze situations, facts, etc.

Trying to choose between your red and green turtleneck for the upcoming holiday feast? Consider your post dinner objectives carefully.

Sally Augustin, Ph.D., is a practicing environmental psychologist who studies person-centered design and sensory science.

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