Washington | Certain people are more likely to rebel against the norm when seeing red, even though the colour is linked to inducing compliant behaviour with warning lights and corrections on a graded assignment, scientists including one of Indian-origin have found. The new study was inspired by a problem faced by a child helpline that offered free counselling to children ages eight to 18.
Leaders of the organisation that ran the service were frustrated because a high percentage of the calls were from pranksters who had no interest in genuine counselling. 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 counsellor. 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 Ravi Mehta, an assistant professor at the University of Illinois. Prank chatting occurred about 22 per cent of the time with the red background, compared to 15 per cent for the white or blue, Mehta said. 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 are willing to take physical, social and financial risks for the sake of such experiences.
To test whether personality type influenced the response to red, the researchers conducted another study in which, college students completed an online questionnaire to assess their level of sensation seeking. Next they answered questions to evaluate their attitude toward compliant behaviour, and the questions were presented on either a red or white screen. People high in sensation seeking who viewed the red background preferred statements that were resistant to compliant behaviour. This did not happen when they saw a white background.
The findings suggest that the assumptions about the colour red may not apply to everyone, and this may have implications for 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 said. 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 said. 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.