Managing the Sensory Environment for Fun and Profit

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Managing the Sensory Environment for Fun and Profit

Our sensitivity to smell can be harnessed in all sorts of novel ways, from enhancing an entertainment experience to increasing learning and improving our chances of success at work.  (We discussed this in "THE SWEET SMELL OF SUCCESS," in the December 2006 issue of Trends,)

However, what we see makes an even bigger impact on our performance than what we smell.  For this analysis, we'll focus on how color and lighting in the workplace can enhance or hurt people's moods and productivity. 

Let's start by considering the impact of color.  As reported on the Web site of the journal Science,1 researchers at the University of British Columbia tested the cognitive performance of 600 people under three conditions.  One group worked on computer screens with red backgrounds.  Another group worked on screens with blue backgrounds, and the third group worked on screens with neutral backgrounds.

Surprisingly, the color of the screen made a big difference in people's performance, as follows:

People in the red group tested better at recall and attention to detail.  For example, they scored high on tasks like remembering a list of words, or finding misspelled words. 

People in the blue group tested better on using their imagination.  For example, they scored high on tasks like turning shapes into toys, or thinking of creative ways to use a brick.

As Juliet Zhu, who co-authored the study, told The New York Times,2 the study has clear implications for workplace performance.  She explained, "If you're talking about wanting enhanced memory for something like proofreading skills, then a red color should be used.  [However, for] a brainstorming session for a new product. . . then you should get people into a blue room."

This is just the latest study in a long line of research that appears to show that colors can affect people's performance by influencing their moods. 

For example, the Times3reports on a study at England's Durham University that shows that the color red can improve the performance of athletes because it subconsciously triggers feelings of dominance.  The researchers compared the performance of athletes who were evenly matched at the 2004 Olympic Games.  In sports such as boxing, tae kwon do, Greco-Roman wrestling, and freestyle wrestling, when one competitor was wearing red and his opponent was wearing blue, the athlete in the red uniform won 60 percent of the time...

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