Menus Subscribe Search
(PHOTO: SHUTTERSTOCK)

(PHOTO: SHUTTERSTOCK)

The Spectrum of Color Response: Take Your Medicine

• January 02, 2013 • 4:47 PM

(PHOTO: SHUTTERSTOCK)

The color of your pills matters. So does the color of your editing pen, of your hockey jersey, of your clothes…

New research finds that when generic pills don’t share the colors given them by their original makers, patients stop renewing their prescriptions at a higher rate than if they just kept taking the old-style, brand-name medicine. “The color of a pill does have clinical relevance,” The New York Times quoted the study’s lead author, Aaron S. Kesselheim.

Given that generics are cheaper than OEM pharmaceuticals, and that presumably the patients has gotten in the habit of both taking their medicine and renewing their prescriptions, the change in color (and shape, to a much lesser extent) seems a bit counterintuitive. But flashes of color pop up routinely—and surprisingly—in driving how humans respond. We’ve looked at a couple of colorful experiments over the years:

  • Green can spark creativity. German researchers found that people looking at numbers on a green background found more ways to either make use of a tin can or draw different objects using a specific geometric figure than those exposed to white, gray, red, and blue cues. As they wrote in the Personality and Social Psychology Bulletin:  “Green facilitates creativity performance, but has no influence on analytical performance, whereas red undermines analytical performance, but has no influence on creativity performance.”
  • Ah yes, that old devil red. It gets blamed, or credited, with lots of influence. Hotness, for one. Women in red, and men, and even animals are seen as more sexually desirable when they have some red on ’em or near ’em.  While it signals sensuality, red can also signal danger, both overtly (“Red means runs, son,” as Neil Young told us) and subconsciously. And red also empowers: teachers armed with red pens graded more sternly than those wielding blue ones.

Color is a less-than-subtle indicator in human interaction and for life in general—think honey bees and coral snakes signaling their cantankerousness. To those who might suggest lots of these results are obvious, keep in mind that these are all instances where the color was tangential at best to what was going on—and yet it appears to have affected the outcome.

In the pill study, reported in Archives of Internal Medicine, for example, the patients were drawn from more than 60,000 people taking an epilepsy medication. The eight anti-seizure medications in the study came in 37 colors and four shapes. Overall, a change in color saw about a 20 percent additional likelihood that a prescription would lapse (there was also an increase when shape was changed, but the change was statistically too small to matter). Note that this doesn’t mean one in five of the patients didn’t renew their prescriptions, but among the very small number who didn’t renew, the percentage was greater when a new color was introduced.

Again, the actual number were small, and the journal reportedly wavered on whether the incremental difference in an absolute sense merited publishing the paper. There is also some concern that what’s true for epileptic drugs may not be true elsewhere. But as Dr. Kenneth Covinsky, the journal’s associate editor, explained in a commentary accompanying the paper:

Ultimately, though, the editors agreed that this perhaps academic discussion of risk magnitude was missing the crucial point: Subjecting patients to this risk is absolutely senseless and absurd. With all the hurdles patients face, how on earth can we justify confusing by needlessly changing the appearance of their medicines? Equivalent generic medicines should be required to look like their brand-name counterparts.

And so the authors call for new regulations that would require “bioequivalent drugs” to look similar.

But I’m also interested in a broader question, of why color mattered in the first place, whether it was the break in routine, the hint of confusion, or the same reason I buy the blue and green bargain shampoos but not the white ones, even though they’re probably all the same except for their FD&C additions. That’s not Dr. Kesselheim’s goal—his noble effort is looking at the safety of generics, not our mental quirks. But color matters.

Michael Todd
Most of Michael Todd's career has been spent in newspaper journalism, ranging from papers in the Marshall Islands to tiny California farming communities. Before joining the publishing arm of the Miller-McCune Center, he was managing editor of the national magazine Hispanic Business.

More From Michael Todd

A weekly roundup of the best of Pacific Standard and PSmag.com, delivered straight to your inbox.

Recent Posts

September 18 • 4:00 PM

Racial Disparity in Imprisonment Inspires White People to Be Even More Tough on Crime

White Americans are more comfortable with punitive and harsh policing and sentencing when they imagine that the people being policed and put in prison are black.



September 18 • 2:00 PM

The Wages of Millions Are Being Seized to Pay Past Debts

A new study provides the first-ever tally of how many employees lose up to a quarter of their paychecks over debts like unpaid credit card or medical bills and student loans.


September 18 • 12:00 PM

When Counterfeit and Contaminated Drugs Are Deadly

The cost and the crackdown, worldwide.


September 18 • 10:00 AM

How Do You Make a Living, Molly Crabapple?

Noah Davis talks to Moly Crapabble about Michelangelo, the Medicis, and the tension between making art and making money.


September 18 • 9:00 AM

Um, Why Are These Professors Creeping on My Facebook Page?

The ethics of student-teacher “intimacy”—on campus and on social media.


September 18 • 8:00 AM

Welcome to the Economy Economy

With the recent introduction of Apple Pay, the Silicon Valley giant is promising to remake how we interact with money. Could iCoin be next?



September 18 • 6:09 AM

How to Build a Better Election

Elimination-style voting is harder to fiddle with than majority rule.


September 18 • 6:00 AM

Homeless on Purpose

The latest entry in a series of interviews about subculture in America.


September 18 • 4:00 AM

Why Original Artworks Move Us More Than Reproductions

Researchers present evidence that hand-created artworks convey an almost magical sense of the artist’s essence.


September 17 • 4:00 PM

Why Gun Control Groups Have Moved Away From an Assault Weapons Ban

A decade after the ban expired, gun control groups say that focusing on other policies will save more American lives.


September 17 • 2:00 PM

Can You Make Two People Like Each Other Just By Telling Them That They Should?

OKCupid manipulates user data in an attempt to find out.


September 17 • 12:00 PM

Understanding ISIL Messaging Through Behavioral Science

By generating propaganda that taps into individuals’ emotional and cognitive states, ISIL is better able motivate people to join their jihad.


September 17 • 10:00 AM

Pulling Punches: Why Sports Leagues Treat Most Offenders With Leniency

There’s a psychological explanation for the weak punishment given to Ray Rice before a video surfaced that made a re-evaluation unavoidable.


September 17 • 9:44 AM

No Innovation Without Migration: Portlandia Is Dying

Build an emerald city. Attract the best and brightest with glorious amenities. They will come and do nothing.



September 17 • 8:00 AM

Why Don’t We Have Pay Toilets in America?

Forty years ago, thanks to an organization founded by four high school friends, human rights beat out the free market—and now we can all pee for free.


September 17 • 6:32 AM

Do Conspiracy Theorists Feed on Unsuspecting Internet Trolls?

Not literally, but debunkers and satirists do fuel conspiracy theorists’ appetites.


September 17 • 6:00 AM

The Grateful Dig: An Archaeologist Excavates a Tie-Dyed Modern Stereotype

What California’s senior state archaeologist discovered in the ruins of a hippie commune.


September 17 • 4:00 AM

The Strong Symbolic Power of Emptying Pockets

Researchers find the symbolic act of emptying a receptacle can impact our behavior, and not for the better.


September 16 • 4:00 PM

Why Is LiveJournal Helping Russia Block a Prominent Critic of Vladimir Putin?

The U.S. blogging company is showing an error message to users inside Russia who try to read the blog of Alexei Navalny, a prominent politician and critic of the Russian government.


September 16 • 2:00 PM

Man Up, Ladies! … But Not Too Much

Too often, women are asked to display masculine traits in order to be successful in the workplace.



September 16 • 12:00 PM

What Makes You So Smart, Brilliant 12-Year-Old?

Charles Wang is going to rule the world.


Follow us


How to Build a Better Election

Elimination-style voting is harder to fiddle with than majority rule.

Do Conspiracy Theorists Feed on Unsuspecting Internet Trolls?

Not literally, but debunkers and satirists do fuel conspiracy theorists' appetites.

3-D Movies Aren’t That Special

Psychologists find that 3-D doesn't have any extra emotional impact.

To Protect Against Meltdowns, Banks Must Map Financial Interconnections

A new model suggests looking beyond balance sheets, studying the network of investment as well.

Big Government, Happy Citizens?

You may like to talk about how much happier you'd be if the government didn't interfere with your life, but that's not what the research shows.

The Big One

One in three drivers in Brooklyn's Park Slope—at certain times of day—is just looking for parking. The same goes for drivers in Manhattan's SoHo. September/October 2014 new-big-one-3

Copyright © 2014 by Pacific Standard and The Miller-McCune Center for Research, Media, and Public Policy. All Rights Reserved.