Turns out, the colour red can evoke mischief in some of us. Results from a new University of Illinois study suggest that certain personality types are more likely to rebel against the norm, rather than comply, when seeing the colour red.
The study was inspired by a problem faced by a Dutch child helpline that offered free counselling to children ages 8 to 18. Leaders of the non-profit organisation that ran the service were frustrated because a high percentage of the calls were from pranksters who had no interest in genuine counselling. The organisation contacted the researchers for help.
Previous studies suggested that the colour red leads to more risk-averse and compliant behaviour. With this in mind, the researchers launched an experiment that showed three different colours on the chat screen while callers were on hold for a counselor. They expected that red would reduce the number of prank chats.
“To our surprise, the prank chatting was higher with the red colour background than the white or blue,” said study author Ravi Mehta, adding “Prank chatting occurred about 22% of the time with the red background, compared to 15% for the white or blue.”
The researchers realised another cognitive response was at work. The colour red can increase non-compliant behaviour in people with “sensation seeking” personality types. These people seek novel and intense sensations and experiences and they’re willing to take physical, social and financial risks for the sake of such experiences.
The findings suggest that the assumptions about the colour red may not apply to everyone, and this could have implications for things like anti-smoking and safe sex campaigns. “Using red to promote these preventative health measures might not work for people who are high in sensation seeking, and it might even backfire,” Mehta noted.
This could also apply to signs warning people not to swim, avoid a dangerous cliff or trespass. Further research is needed to explore whether this finding applies to healthy eating behaviour, Mehta concluded. Red could help some people comply with health eating recommendations, but for high sensation seeking personality types, this may not be the colour of choice. The study is published online in the Journal of Consumer Psychology.