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A Flash of Green Enhances Creativity

• March 20, 2012 • 3:18 PM

New research finds brief exposure to the color green appears to stimulate inventiveness.

Want to be more creative? You might want to take a stroll through the park, eat a spinach salad, or catch a few minutes of the Muppets — keeping your eye on Kermit the Frog.

According to newly published research, innovative thinking seems to be stimulated by the color green.

A research team led by University of Munich psychologist Stephanie Lichtenfeld reports the color of limes and leaves “has implications beyond aesthetics.” Specifically, a glimpse of green appears to activate “the type of pure, open (mental) processing required to do well on creativity tasks.”

The researchers found this effect with different groups of people, different tests of creativity, and differently designed experiments. Participants exposed to green outperformed those exposed to white, gray, red, and blue, respectively, suggesting there is something unique about the color as a creative catalyst.

The paper is part of a fascinating new field of research examining the mental effects of color. To date, studies receiving the most attention have focused on red, which has been linked to sexual attractiveness, the perception of danger, and adherence to strict standards (a 2010 paper found teachers gave harsher grades when correcting papers using red ink).

Lichtenfeld and her colleagues decided to look at the other end of the color wheel. They note that, in English and many other languages, the etymological root of the word “green” is “grow,” which presumably reflects the fact it is the dominant color of plants and vegetation.

“Historically, green has been used to symbolize concepts closely related to growth, such as fertility, life and hope,” they write. So, they ask, might it be associated in our minds with the flowering of inventive ideas?

Four experiments, described in the journal Personality and Social Psychology Bulletin, provide evidence that it is.

One experiment was conducted over the Internet (specifically, Amazon’s crowdsourcing platform Mechanical Turk). On the first screen, the 69 participants were presented with a number placed in either a green or white rectangle. They were then given two minutes to come up with as many creative uses they could come up with for a tin can.

“Participants in the green condition exhibited more creativity than those in the white condition,” the researchers report. (In this case, creativity was defined as coming up with “an idea that is uncommon, remote and clever.”)

In another experiment, 35 German college students were asked to draw as many different objects as they could from a geometric figure over two and one-half minutes. Before beginning, they spent approximately two seconds looking at the front page of a binder, in which the word “Ideas” was framed with either a green or gray rectangle. Once again, those exposed to green displayed more creativity.

Two additional experiments featuring high school students found higher levels of creativity among those briefly exposed to green, as compared to those who saw a flash of red or blue. Color did not impact the participants’ mood in any of the experiments.

“The emerging data on color and performance exhibit the following pattern,” the researchers write. “Green facilitates creativity performance, but has no influence on analytical performance, whereas red undermines analytical performance, but has no influence on creativity performance.”

They argue that red hinders analytical ability because it “prompts worry and distraction.” Green, on the other hand, provides “a cue of growth-oriented mastery.”

And so the color of verdant nature inspires budding artists.

Tom Jacobs
Staff writer Tom Jacobs is a veteran journalist with more than 20 years experience at daily newspapers. He has served as a staff writer for The Los Angeles Daily News and the Santa Barbara News-Press. His work has also appeared in The Los Angeles Times, Chicago Tribune, and Ventura County Star.

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