Seeing red: How color can influence online risk-taking behavior

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Recent research suggests that color, in this case the color red, may play a role in online risky behavior.

Two studies sought to address how red color cues may influence the willingness to take risk in online environments. In the first study, 383 German students with a mean age of 24, were presented with eight choice dilemmas related to financial risk-taking. Each dilemma involved either a risky option with greater gain (such as financial gain) or a low risk option; participants were to select their preferred option for each dilemma. Color was manipulated via a task irrelevant component of the online questionnaire, the headline title “Online Study,” and participants were randomly assigned to either a red or grey color headline condition.

Results indicated that those participants selected fewer risky options in the red versus the gray condition, with researchers noting “the experiment showed that a task-irrelevant color manipulation of the online environment affected risk-taking behavior. Participants faced with the color red initiated less risky behaviors as compared to participants seeing gray. Moreover, the color effect was more pronounced for choices between two risky options and could not be observed when one choice alternative granted participants a certainty of success.” No differences were found between male and female participants.

A second study extended on findings from the first study by examining risk-taking behavior coupled with a competitive task; 144 students (mean age 23) participated in a contest that involved risky behavior in a competitive environment.

To measure risk-taking behavior, the Balloon Analogue Risk Task (BART) was administered. This online visual exercise involves inflating a balloon to collect a reward. As the balloon inflates, there is greater risk for the balloon to explode, but also greater chance for reward. Balloons had the same probability of bursting; half were red and half were blue.

Results indicated that significantly fewer red than blue balloons were burst, supporting the hypothesis that the color red would influence less willingness to take risks; no gender differences were found.

Both studies lend credence to the color red as an avoidance trigger, decreasing the probability of online risk taking. Researchers Timo Gnambs, Markus Appel and Eileen Oeberst assert that findings from the two studies are “in line with previous research in achievement contexts, (whereby) results reinforce the link between red and avoidance motivation which leads to risk-averse behaviors in online environments.” The study, “Red Color and Risk-Taking Behavior in Online Environments,” is published in the July issue of PLOS ONE.