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Keywords:

  • Colour;
  • Red;
  • Performance;
  • China

Abstract

  1. Top of page
  2. Abstract
  3. METHODS
  4. RESULTS
  5. DISCUSSION
  6. REFERENCES

Previous research shows that red impairs individuals' performance on challenging intellectual tasks in achievement situations. However, no research to date has examined this issue in Chinese society. In China, red has a positive connotation in general (unlike in the West), but also has a negative connotation for students, given that teachers mark incorrect answers in red (like in the West). Therefore, the question of whether red promotes or undermines intellectual performance for Chinese individuals needs to be tested. The present research investigated this and found, consistent with findings obtained in the West, that red undermined the intellectual performance of Chinese students. Future directions and potential mechanisms are discussed.

Colour plays an important role in people's perceptual experience of the world (Elliot, Maier, Moller, Friedman, & Meinhardt, 2007; Gerrig, 2009). Colour is not just a critical feature of the visual world, it is also an important carrier of symbolic meaning (Jiang, Lu, Yao, Yue, & Au, 2013). In order to account systematically for the role of colour in psychological functioning, Elliot and Maier (2012) proposed colour in context theory. This theory not only posits that colour carries meaning, but also that the meaning that colour carries is context-specific and, therefore, the influence that colour has on psychological functioning is context-specific. In line with this notion, past research has demonstrated that colours have different effects on psychological functioning in a variety of different domains, including achievement (Elliot et al., 2007), sexual attractiveness (Elliot & Niesta, 2008), athletic competition (Hagemann, Strauss, & Leißing, 2008), prediction and judgement (Jiang et al., 2013), marketing and product evaluation (Labrecque & Milne, 2012) and food consumption (Bruno, Martani, Corsini, & Oleari, 2013).

In the achievement domain, performance is evaluated and both positive (i.e. success) and negative (i.e. failure) outcomes are possible. The colour red is commonly associated with the danger of failure (e.g. incorrect answers are marked in red ink), and accordingly, with avoidance motivation (i.e. trying to avoid failure) in achievement situations. As a consequence, red is assumed to undermine performance on challenging intellectual tasks in achievement contexts (Elliot et al., 2007). The literature to date on red's psychological effects on such tasks has ignored the issue of cultural generality or specificity; the vast majority (if not all) of the experimental work published in peer reviewed journals has been conducted in the West (Elliot, Payen, Brisswalter, Cury, & Thayer, 2011; Elliot et al., 2007; Gnambs, Appel, & Batinic, 2010; Houtman & Notebaert, 2013; Ioan et al., 2007; Maier, Elliot, & Lichtenfeld, 2008; Mehta & Zhu, 2009; Sinclair, Soldat, & Mark, 1998; Soldat, Sinclair, & Mark, 1997). No research to date has examined whether red promotes or undermines individuals' intellectual performance in Chinese society.

The different meanings associated with red in Chinese culture leads to two different hypotheses regarding the red-performance relationship. On the one hand, unlike in the West, red has positive connotations for the Chinese in general (i.e. it is linked to approach motivation, e.g. being warm and obtaining good outcomes, rather than avoidance motivation). For instance, in the West, red in the financial world indicates imminent danger or deterioration (“going in the red”), the possibility of a dangerous event triggers a “red alert,” and an embarrassing situation leaves a person “red faced.” In Chinese society, however, people tend to describe business prosperity as “red and fire,” rich and noble people are seen as coming from the “red door” and the matchmaker is referred to as “red mother.” Recent work conducted by Jiang et al. (2013) has shown that compared to individuals from Hong Kong, those from Mainland China were more likely to expect good outcomes in general when scenarios were presented in red (Study 3). Therefore, in accord with these positive connotations of red in China, one could propose a cultural specificity hypothesis, namely that the negative effect of red on intellectual performance would be attenuated in a Chinese sample (Hypothesis 1).

On the other hand, Chinese culture has some of the same red-danger connotations that Western cultures have (i.e. red is also linked to negative valence and avoidance in certain contexts). For instance, red means stop in traffic signals and, perhaps most importantly, red is used to mark incorrect answers in the educational system, much as it is in the West. Thus, we might expect that red would also undermine individuals' performance on challenging intellectual tasks in Chinese society, similar to the effect observed in Western cultures (the cultural generality hypothesis—Hypothesis 2).

In the following experiment, we put these opposing hypotheses to test in a sample of Chinese students. Past research has shown that the colour red undermines performance on challenging cognitive tasks relative to colours such as green (Elliot et al., 2007; Houtman & Notebaert, 2013) and blue (Gnambs et al., 2010; Mehta & Zhu, 2009). In this study, we examined the influence of the colour red, relative to the colour blue, on performance on a challenging Chinese idioms test under timed, evaluative conditions.

METHODS

  1. Top of page
  2. Abstract
  3. METHODS
  4. RESULTS
  5. DISCUSSION
  6. REFERENCES

Participants

A total of 58 (8 males, 50 females) Chinese undergraduates participated in the study in return for a small gift (a pen). The mean age of participants was 20.5 years old with a range of 19–21 years. All participants reported being right-handed, having normal or corrected-to-normal vision1 and having no colour deficiencies.

Materials and procedures

Participants were informed that the experiment involved solving problems on a Chinese idioms test, and were encouraged to perform as well as they could. They were told that they would have 20 minutes to complete 15 questions, and that the experimenter would mark the test but would not reveal their score to the participant or others. The set of 15 multiple-choice questions was selected from a 2011/2012 college entrance examination. For each question, participants were provided with a paragraph of text containing four different idioms. In one variant of question, one of the four idioms was incorrect and participants were to identify the incorrect idiom, whereas in the other variant of question, one of the four idioms was correct and participants were to identify the correct idiom. The task was self-paced and participants could go back to work on a previous question as time permitted. Participants indicated their answers on a written form.

Participants were randomly assigned to either the red condition (n = 29) or the blue condition (n = 29). The experimenter was blind to the participant's condition until the end of the experiment. The test questions were presented with Microsoft PowerPoint, and the letters comprising the items were provided in colour. The RGB colour model was used to produce the colours: Red condition (red = 255, green = 0, blue = 0) and blue condition (red = 0, green = 0, blue = 255). The experimenter left the participant alone to work on the task, and came back after 20 minutes to score the test and debrief the participant.

RESULTS

  1. Top of page
  2. Abstract
  3. METHODS
  4. RESULTS
  5. DISCUSSION
  6. REFERENCES

An independent samples t-test with colour (red vs. blue) as the between-subjects factor was conducted on the number of problems solved correctly. The analysis indicated that participants in the red condition (M = 9.07, SD = 1.83) performed worse than did participants in the blue condition (M = 10.07, SD = 1.65), t(56) = 2.19, p = .033, d = .58 (Figure 1).1 An exploratory 2 (colour: red vs. blue) × 2 (type of question: Identify correct idioms versus identify incorrect idioms) analysis of variance (ANOVA) was also conducted. Neither the main effect of question type, F(1,56) = 1.22, p = .27, ns, nor its interaction with colour, F(1,56) = 1.17, p = .29, ns, was significant.

image

Figure 1. Mean number of problems solved correctly by colour condition. Confidence intervals (95%) are indicated by vertical lines.

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DISCUSSION

  1. Top of page
  2. Abstract
  3. METHODS
  4. RESULTS
  5. DISCUSSION
  6. REFERENCES

The present research in China showed an undermining effect of red relative to blue on intellectual performance, much as has been found in research in Western cultures. These data provide support for Hypothesis 2, the cultural generality hypothesis, and refute Hypothesis 1, the cultural specificity hypothesis. Given that the present research is based directly on prior research in this area, we would like to report that this study is the only study that we conducted on colour and intellectual performance (see Bruno et al., 2013 for a similar statement).

Although the current results are consistent with the findings obtained in the West, the underlying mechanism responsible for the effect in China remains unclear. It may be that red is linked to avoidance motivation in achievement situations which, in turn, undermines individuals' performance. This is the explanation provided for the red undermining effect observed in the West (Elliot et al., 2007). However, it is also possible that the underlying mechanism responsible for the red effect in China is different from that in the West; in fact, it could even be approach, rather than avoidance, motivation. Specifically, as noted earlier, in Chinese society, red is often linked to positive valence in general, which would evoke approach motivation. However, in a hierarchical and collectivistic culture such as China, the general cultural emphasis is on avoidance motivation (e.g. avoiding the loss of face; Elliot, Chirkov, Kim, & Sheldon, 2001; Hamamura, Meijer, Heine, Kamaya, & Hori, 2009). Accordingly, red may evoke approach motivation, which is mismatched with the cultural emphasis on avoidance motivation, and it is this mismatch that actually leads to diminished performance. It would be valuable for future investigation to pinpoint the exact mechanism underlying this red effect in China. It would also be valuable for future investigation to test the influence of red on other types of tasks in China, such as simple tasks that require minimal or low-level cognitive processing (Mehta & Zhu, 2009).

The current research has some limitations. First, although blue was used as a contrast to red, no achromatic colour—black, white or grey—was included. Future work involving achromatic colours as well as chromatic colours would be helpful to enable a more comprehensive examination of colour effects beyond the West. Second, we controlled colour properties using a software program in order to focus specifically on hue, but the colours were not verified with a colorimeter (Elliot & Maier, 2012). Future work would benefit from this type of additional rigour in colour control and presentation.

In conclusion, although previous research has explored the influence of colour on psychological functioning in various contexts, research has yet to focus on the influence of red on intellectual performance in Chinese society. Consistent with findings emerging from the West, our results indicated that viewing red during a challenging cognitive task undermines performance for Chinese students. The next step in this work is to examine whether red evokes avoidance motivation in achievement contexts in China, or whether the influence of red is different across cultures at the level of basic motivational processes.

  1. 1

    A preliminary analysis revealed no gender difference (p=.23). Given there were only eight males in total, we also conducted the primary analysis again using the female sample only; the effect was still significant (p<.01).

REFERENCES

  1. Top of page
  2. Abstract
  3. METHODS
  4. RESULTS
  5. DISCUSSION
  6. REFERENCES
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