In Living Color: Making Safety Signs Work

May 7, 2002
If you want employees to read the safety signs you've posted all over the plant, not just glance at them and continue walking, then think color, says a trio of European psychologists.

If you want employees to read the safety signs you''ve posted all over the plant, not just glance at them and continue walking, then think color.

According to a trio of researchers, use bright colors - neon-bright - if you want to grab their attention. But use natural-looking colors if you want them to remember what they''ve seen. And if you want them to immediately forget what they''ve seen, use black and white.

According to a new research study, if a picture is worth a thousand words, a picture with natural-looking colors may be worth a million, memory-wise. The findings, reported in the May issue of the Journal of Experimental Psychology: Learning, Memory and Cognition, published by the American Psychological Association (APA), shed light on how a person''s visual system processes information about color.

According to researchers, color helps us to process and store images more efficiently than colorless (black and white) scenes, and as a result, we remember them better.

In Europe, a trio of psychologists conducted five experiments to explore color''s role in memory. In the basic experiment, participants looked at 48 photographs, half in color and half in black and white. Then, they viewed the same 48 images randomly mixed with 48 new images, and indicated if they had seen each picture. Participants remembered the colored natural scenes significantly better than they remembered black and white images, regardless of how long they saw the images.

People who saw images in color but were tested on them in black and white, and vice versa, did not remember them as well. This finding suggests that image colors are part and parcel of initial storage, attached to how objects "appear" in our memory.

Through experimental variations, the researchers ruled out whether color''s built-in appeal caused the advantage by grabbing participants'' attention better than black and white.

Among other findings, people did not remember falsely colored scenes any better than scenes in black and white - suggesting that it wasn''t just color that strengthened memory, but rather natural color. Says co-author Karl Gegenfurtner, Ph.D.,

"It appears as if our memory system is tuned, presumably by evolution and/or during development, to the color structure found in the world. If stimuli are too strange, the system simply doesn''t engage as well, or deems them unimportant," said co-author Karl Gegenfurtner, Ph.D. Safety managers could find these studies valuable. "In order to engage or grab [an employee''s] attention, bright colors might well be most suitable," observed co-author Felix Wichmann, Ph.D. "If, on the other hand, the aim is more to have an image ''stick'' in the viewer''s memory, unnatural colors may not be suitable."

by Sandy Smith ([email protected])

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