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Research shows that looking at the colour blue can double your creativity, thanks to its associations with soothing images like water and sky.

A University of British Columbia study reconciles a debate that has long raged among marketers and psychologists: What colour most improves brain performance and receptivity, red or blue? It turns out they both can, it just depends on the nature of the task or message. The study, which could have major implications for advertising and interior design, finds that red is the most effective at enhancing our attention to detail, while blue is best at boosting our ability to think creatively.

“Previous research linked blue and red to enhanced cognitive performance, but disagreed on which provides the greatest boost,” says Juliet Zhu author of the study which appeared in Science Express. “It really depends on the nature of the task.” The researchers tracked more than 600 participants’ performance on six cognitive tasks that required either detail-orientation or creativity. Most experiments were conducted on computers, with a screen that was red, blue or white. Red boosted performance on detail-oriented tasks such as memory retrieval and proofreading by as much as 31 per cent compared to blue. Conversely, for creative tasks such as brainstorming, blue environmental cues prompted participants to produce twice as many creative outputs as when under the red colour condition.

“Thanks to stop signs, emergency vehicles and teachers’ red pens, we associate red with danger, mistakes and caution,” says Zhu. “The avoidance motivation, or heightened state, that red activates makes us vigilant and thus helps us perform tasks where careful attention is required to produce a right or wrong answer.” Conversely, blue encourages us to think outside the box and be creative, says Zhu. “Through associations with the sky, the ocean and water, most people associate blue with openness, peace and tranquility. The benign cues make people feel safe about being creative and exploratory. Not surprisingly it is people’s favourite colour.”