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Rebels React to Seeing Red

Rebels React to Seeing Red

While the color red is usually associated with inducing compliant behavior — think stop signs or red correction marks on a graded assignment — certain personality types are more likely to rebel against the norm when they see red, according to a new study.

The study was inspired by a problem faced by a Dutch helpline that offered free counseling to children ages eight to 18. Leaders of the non-profit organization were frustrated because a high percentage of the calls were from pranksters who had no interest in genuine counseling. The organization contacted the researchers for help.

Previous studies suggested that the color red leads to more risk-averse and compliant behavior. With this in mind, the researchers launched an experiment that showed three different colors on the chat screen while callers were on hold for a counselor. They expected that red would reduce the number of prank chats.

“To our surprise, the prank chatting was higher with the red color background than the white or blue,” said study author Ravi Mehta, Ph.D., an assistant professor of business administration at the University of Illinois.

“Prank chatting occurred about 22 percent of the time with the red background, compared to 15 percent for the white or blue.”

The researchers realized another cognitive response was at work.

That’s because the color red can increase noncompliant behavior in people with “sensation-seeking” personality types. These people seek novel and intense sensations and experiences — and they’re willing to take physical, social, and financial risks for the sake of such experiences, the researchers noted.

To test whether personality type influenced the response to red, the researchers conducted another study.

In this experiment, college students completed an online questionnaire to assess their level of sensation seeking. Next they answered questions to evaluate their attitude toward compliant behavior, 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 behavior, according to the study’s findings. This did not happen when they saw a white background.

The findings suggest that the assumptions about the color red may not apply to everyone, and this could have implications for things like 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.

The study was published in the Journal of Consumer Psychology.

Source: Society for Consumer Psychology 

Rebels React to Seeing Red

Janice Wood

Janice Wood is a long-time writer and editor who began working at a daily newspaper before graduating from college. She has worked at a variety of newspapers, magazines and websites, covering everything from aviation to finance to healthcare.

APA Reference
Wood, J. (2018). Rebels React to Seeing Red. Psych Central. Retrieved on September 26, 2020, from
Scientifically Reviewed
Last updated: 8 Aug 2018 (Originally: 10 Jul 2016)
Last reviewed: By a member of our scientific advisory board on 8 Aug 2018
Published on Psych All rights reserved.