Researchers at Ohio State have found that color confuses our decision making process by drawing us subconsciously so deep into the details that we lose sight of the big picture.
In a cleverly designed study, subjects were shown pictures of two radios and ask to pick the one they would take with them on a camping trip to a remote location that could receive only a single station:
“the campsite manager offered two radios for rent: a basic analog radio for $10 a day, or a fancy digital radio with many station preset buttons for $18 a day. Not only was the digital radio more expensive, but its preset buttons would be of no value at the imaginary campsite.”
The volunteers who were shown the options in black and white made the sensible choice — they took the cheaper unit. Only a quarter of the candidates selected the radio that cost more.
Conversely, when shown the radios in color pictures, 50 percent chose to pay extra for fancy presets that would be of no use with only one station available to tune in.
The color confusion continued as subjects sorted high heels and rain boots that were solid colors or white with polka dots. Although the polka dots were equally obvious patterns when shown in black and white, candidates asked to sort the black and white footwear put the high heels into one category and rain boots into their own category more often. When the footwear was solid red or dotted in red, the study participants were more likely to sort the high heels and rain boots with polka dots into a group separate from the solid shoes and boots.
Study co-author Kentaro Fujita explains the phenomenon as a consequence of the way our brain works in low-light conditions, where colors are less visible while form and function take precedence. As colors become more visible, our eyes shift to processing the detail — and our brain loses sight of the fundamental functions.
Can consumers use this research to take back control of their shopping decisions? Next time you are faced with a tough decision between products with differing functions, try snapping photos of the product options and edit them with a black and white filter. Use the photos to judge which product fits your needs best. If this research is any indicator, you will save money and get the product you really need by tricking your brain to think about what really matters.