Seeing Green (or, Maybe Blue) Makes You More Creative

I’ve just read a scientific article that provides evidence that green makes you more creative. The researchers conducted four different experimental studies, and in each study, people performed simple creativity tasks that could be easily scored (such as “think of unusual uses for a tin can”). Before the creativity task started, half of the subjects were “primed” with a two-second glimpse of green, and the other half saw instead white, gray, red, or blue, depending on the study.

The people who saw green were quite a bit more creative, in all four studies. In one of the four experiments, the people who saw green scored an average of over 2.0 on the creativity scale, and the people who saw white scored about 1.75. It might seem small, but for only two seconds of color that’s a pretty big effect!

Cover design with marblesI personally like this result–first, because green has been my favorite color since childhood; and second, because green is the color of the artwork in my 2013 creativity advice book, Zig Zag: The Surprising Path to Greater Creativity…not only the marbles on the cover (at right) but also the interior artwork.

But wait a minute…didn’t Jonah Lehrer’s book Imagine report on a study showing that blue made people more creative? I went back and checked, and sure enough, here’s the 2009 study from the University of British Columbia: 600 subjects were given various cognitive tasks against different colored backgrounds, and blue backgrounds made people more creative. Hey, I like blue too (light blue is the color of my university, the University of North Carolina) so green…blue…I’m happy either way. But what’s going on here?

In the 2012 paper arguing for green, one of the studies compared green with both blue and gray. They found (again) that green resulted in the highest creativity. Blue made people even less creative than seeing gray! That sounds pretty bad for fans of blue.

So how would the 2009 authors respond? Their study left out green entirely, comparing only blue, red, and white. That would seem really odd to the authors of the 2012 paper, who make their love of green obvious from the start; they argue that green is the color of growth and fertility in a wide range of cultures around the world, concluding that “This green-growth link is undoubtedly rooted in societal learning that may itself be grounded in an evolutionarily engrained predisposition.”

Honestly, I don’t know what’s going on. Frankly, I find it implausible that you could increase creativity just by painting your walls blue, or green, or whatever. Dr. Christopher Chabris, in his brutally critical review of Lehrer’s book Imagine, notes that “research on such color priming effects is hardly settled science.” That sounds right to me.

But hey, at least we know to stay away from red, white, and gray.

 

Critical Review of Imagine by Jonah Lehrer

Jonah Lehrer’s best-selling book Imagine just received a fairly critical review in the New York Times.* This follows on a famously critical review by Steven Poole in The Guardian. When I first commented on Lehrer’s book in March 2012, I was generally positive, although my overall sense was that his book didn’t really have anything new that hadn’t already appeared in other good creativity books. Poole’s scathing review was perhaps easy to dismiss, because of its bitingly sarcastic tone and also because he didn’t sufficiently ground his critique with quotations from the book. (Although I agree with his skepticism about the way Lehrer interprets neuroscience studies; see my article “The cognitive neuroscience of creativity”.) This new review by Christopher Chabris is much more sober and better supported, with specific criticisms, for example:

Lehrer makes science errors, like saying that visual information from the left eye goes to the right hemisphere (in fact, visual information from the left visual field of both eyes goes to the right hemisphere); different electrodes in an EEG do not record brain waves of different frequencies (they each record the same waves at a different location on the scalp); the Remote Associates Test is a divergent thinking test (creativity researchers agree it is a convergent thinking test).

Chabris argues that Lehrer often makes the basic undergraduate error of confusing correlation with causation. For example, Lehrer cites one study that shows that highly creative employees are also people who consult more colleagues–a correlation. Lehrer then concludes that if you increase the quantity of your office conversations, it will make you more creative (causation). Of course, it’s just as likely that creative people tend to be more talkative just because they have lots of ideas they want to share.

Chabris concludes, just as I did, that Lehrer’s book is entertaining to read, for its stories and its scientific studies. But if you want a stronger grounding in the science of creativity, you can always try my book Group Genius (one of the many books Lehrer drew his research from). And the bottom line is, I love it that Lehrer’s book is selling so well, and introducing so many people to a field of research I’ve dedicated my life to.

*Christopher Chabris, May 13 2012: “Boggle the Mind”. New York Times Sunday Book Review, page 12.

Sawyer, R. K. 2011. The cognitive neuroscience of creativity. In Creativity Research Journal.