Research shows that exposure to certain colors affects how we think and act.
AS I GOT INTO THAT TAXI I FELT LIKE A MILLION POUNDS—BUT LOOKED MORE LIKE £7.50.
It was 1988 and, as a part-time staffer at the local jewelry store, I‘d been invited to attend a training evening and formal dinner hosted by a major Swiss watch manufacturer. Aged just 16, I welcomed the opportunity to enter the corporate world and considered carefully what to wear to an event that represented my first foray into the world of formal business meetings.
I say I “considered it carefully,” but actually that’s a lie. As many of you will remember, the fashion world does not consider the late 1980s as its finest hour, which partially explains why the one suit I did own was bright, luminous green, had huge shoulder pads and was about six sizes too big. It hung over my gangly body like a great big lump of gooey lime—the best comparison I can think of is the suit worn by Jim Carey’s character Stanley Ipkiss in The Mask, though his was, of course, bright orange.
My memory of that night, apart from the sheer terror of struggling with three pairs of cutlery, was a rather cutting remark from the sponsor’s head of sales that shattered my fragile teenage confidence. As I was introduced to him, the room seemed to descend into near silence allowing all present to hear (and then stifle sniggers at) his harsh—but accurate—observation: “Tell me you don’t wear that suit when in the shop? You look like an undernourished cactus.” I went bright red with embarrassment and remained so for most of the evening.
As my self-consciousness grew, I kept catching glimpses of the bright green fabric that a few weeks ago had seemed so fashionable, questioning what had made me buy such a bright shade, and why I’d not gone for another color. These days grey or navy may be appropriate, but back then, my age, popular fashion and…well…personal finances dictated a limited set of options.
Consider your business wardrobe for a moment. I’m not talking style, but color. Do you open the doors to see a rainbow in front of you (I bet you know people who arrange their wardrobes in exactly that way!) or is it a dull monochrome of browns and blacks? Consider, too, the color of the rooms in which you meet and the effect of those tones.
Research suggests that exposure to certain colors can have a significant effect on how we think and act. In 2009, Psychological Science reported on research undertaken by sports psychologists at the University of Münster (Germany). They showed 42 experienced taekwondo referees video clips of bouts in which one contestant wore red and the other blue and asked them to call a winner. They then showed the refs the same clips, but digitally reversed the colors that each contestant wore. The results? In close matches, the scoring reversed, too, with red competitors winning an average 13 percent more often. Lead psychologist Norbet Hagemann explained: “If one competitor is strong and the other weak, it won’t change the outcome of the fight…but the closer the levels, the easier it is for the color to tip the scale.”
It was, in fact, in a sporting context that the powerful influence of color was first properly investigated. As reported in New Scientist, early last decade evolutionary anthropologists Russell Hill and Robert Barton of Durham University (U.K.) were looking for ways to test the idea that colors influence human behavior and, with the 2004 Olympics Games in Athens approaching, decided to focus on combat sports such as boxing, taekwondo and Graeco-Roman and freestyle wrestling in which competitors are assigned random red or blue kits. Just as in the taekwondo experiment, there was a statistically significant bias toward those in red winning, although red didn’t suddenly stop competitors from losing.
The difference can be accounted for, to some extent, by the referee’s unconscious preference for red, which may be inherited. Interestingly, scientists also believe that color affects combatant mood and behavior.
There is also research that suggests that color affects team games, too. In 2009, the Journal of Sports Sciences reported on research led by Martin Attrill at the University of Plymouth (U.K.) in which scientists analyzed 56 football (soccer) seasons and found that, on average, teams whose first-choice kit was red finished higher in the league and won more home games than teams in any other colors (this might explain the dominance of Liverpool, Manchester United and Arsenal in the last 60 years).
The manager of one of the soccer clubs I played for painted our home locker red and the away locker an awful shade of beige, in the hope that we’d be aggressively determined, and our opponents would have the energy sucked out of them. Who knows if it worked, but we certainly had a successful home record for the few years I was there.
But, enough about sports. What about meetings? Let’s assume we all see the same color (which, of course, is not the case). Scientific American Mind cited surrounding yourself with the color blue as one of its eight ways to become more creative. The New York Times suggested a red room if you want your work to be more accurate or remember better. Experts argue that any number of emotions and behaviors—energy, confidence, passion, truth, optimism, calm and reflectiveness—are affected by color, so it’s worth the trouble of investigating your options in the quest for better meetings.
Will you view your wardrobe with a new perspective now, choosing to wear red when you are planning to negotiate and blue when you are trying to be creative? Maybe it’s time to experiment, but I’d suggest you avoid lime green suits or you might get confused for an undernourished cactus. One+
One+ December 2011,