Academic journal article Psychonomic Bulletin & Review

Failure to Replicate the Mehta and Zhu (2009) Color-Priming Effect on Anagram Solution Times

Academic journal article Psychonomic Bulletin & Review

Failure to Replicate the Mehta and Zhu (2009) Color-Priming Effect on Anagram Solution Times

Article excerpt

Published online: 13 November 2013

© Psychonomic Society, Inc. 2013

Abstract Mehta and Zhu (Science, 323 ,1226-1229, 2009) hypothesized that the color red induces avoidance motivation and that the color blue induces approach motivation. In one experiment, they reported that anagrams of avoidance motivation words were solved more quickly on red backgrounds and that approach motivation anagrams were solved more quickly on blue backgrounds. Reported here is a direct replication of that experiment, using the same anagrams, instructions, and colors, with more than triple the number of participants used in the original study. The results did not show the Mehta and Zhu color-priming effects, even though statistical power was sufficient to detect the effect. The results call into question the existence of their color-priming effect on the solution of anagrams.

Keywords Color * Priming * Approach * Avoidance * Motivation * Anagram

Few people would object to the hypothesis that specific colors may produce strong effects on a person. For instance, I may have a preference for, or react with pride to, a dark blue because of my association with a university years ago. I may be more or less aware of the cause of the emotion. An important question, however, is whether we should expect that color to induce a common affective or motivational state in a randomly selected sample of people. Recently, several articles have reported that certain colors prime specific motivational or affective states in particular contexts and that these priming effects change behavior predictably (Elliot & Maier, 2012). This article will focus on one of those studies.

In an article reported in Science , Mehta and Zhu (2009) hypothesized that exposure to the color red activates a state of avoidance motivation because of its association with danger and mistakes. This state causes people to become more vigi- lant and risk-averse, resulting in better performance on a task that requires attention to details. In contrast, exposure to blue activates a state of approach motivation due to its association with openness, peace, and tranquility. These associations sig- nal a benign environment and facilitate performance on tasks that require innovative solutions.

Mehta and Zhu (2009) reported the results of six studies that investigated the ability of red to improve performance on detail-oriented tasks and blue to improve performance on creative tasks. The general procedure was a between-groups comparison among people assigned to either a red, a blue, or a neutral (white) condition over a wide range of tasks. Mehta and Zhu reported that exposure to the color red decreased the solution times of avoidance-related anagrams, increased pref- erence for brands that stressed safety, and produced greater free recall in a memory task, greater proofreading accuracy, more practical toy designs, and higher favorability ratings for a camera ad centered on product details. In contrast, exposure to blue decreased solution times for approach-motivation an- agrams, increased preference for brands that stressed style or adventure, increased the number of creative uses for a brick, produced toy designs that were more original, and increased the favorability ratings for a camera ad with a travel and adventure theme.

The Mehta and Zhu (2009) article has inspired subsequent studies. Rutchick, Slepian, and Ferris (2010) reported that people using red pens marked more errors and awarded lower grades than did people using blue pens. Genschow, Reutner, and Wänke (2012) investigated the effect of color on snack food consumption and reported that red inhibited consump- tion of both food and drink relative to blue. Smeesters and Liu (2011) reported that red produced contrast away from an exemplar, whereas blue produced assimilation toward an ex- emplar. (The Smeesters and Liu report has been shown to be fraudulent and has been retracted: Simonsohn, 2013b; Smeesters & Liu, 2013. …

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