Research Design Connection: Take Care with Red

People with different personality traits, particularly differences related to sensation seeking (described below), seem to respond in different ways to seeing the color red. Mehta, Demmers, van Dolen and Weinberg report that, “Previous research has shown that the color red, as compared to other colors, leads to the highest level of compliance and induces conformity not only with instructions and warnings but also with social norms
[however] exposure to the color red may in fact lead to higher non-compliant behavior [for higher sensation seekers].”

Mehta and team detail some of the noncompliant behavior they found during the course of their study: “participants were presented with a public service announcement (PSA) recommending regular use of sunscreen, either on a red or a white background screen
the color red
activated reactance for high sensation-seekers
these participants demonstrated higher negative willingness and motivation to use sunscreen.”

The study is important because “Red is often used to signal danger, warn people, and prevent or stop people from engaging in unwanted behavior.” Wikipedia, quoting Zuckerman (2009), introduces sensation seeking in this way: “Sensation seeking is a personality trait defined by the search for experiences and feelings, that are ‘varied, novel, complex and intense’, and by the readiness to ‘take physical, social, legal, and financial risks for the sake of such experiences” (

Ravi Mehta, Joris Demmers, Willemijn van Dolen and Charles Weinberg. “When Red Means Go: Non-Normative Effects of Red Under Sensation Seeking.” Journal of Consumer Psychology, in press.

Sally Augustin, PhD, a cognitive scientist, is the editor of Research Design Connections (, a monthly subscription newsletter and free daily blog, where recent and classic research in the social, design, and physical sciences that can inform designers’ work are presented in straightforward language. Readers learn about the latest research findings immediately, before they’re available elsewhere. Sally, who is a Fellow of the American Psychological Association, is also the author of Place Advantage: Applied Psychology for Interior Architecture (Wiley, 2009) and, with Cindy Coleman, The Designer’s Guide to Doing Research: Applying Knowledge to Inform Design (Wiley, 2012). She is a principal at Design With Science ( and can be reached at