One of the things I was taught in English graduate school was never to grade papers using red ink. Students don’t respond well to the color red, I was told — it’s intimidating. I always thought this was a little far-fetched, and my instructors couldn’t offer a peer-reviewed journal article that definitively answered the question of whether red ink was harmful.
There is some research on the question of whether red is harmful in an academic setting — but it’s inconclusive, with some studies showing harm and others appearing to show a benefit to the color red. For decades, there has been a theoretical argument that red is arousing or threatening, but little data to back it up. A team led by Andrew Elliot argues that what little data exists is problematic. Most of the studies on color suffer from flaws. In many cases, the experimenter was aware of the color condition, and so may have biased research subjects with actions that were themselves seen as intimidating or threatening.
One seemingly contradictory study that found athletes performed better while wearing red could be explained in two ways: either red improves performance because athletes wearing the color win more frequently, or red impairs performance of competitors facing athletes wearing red.
I’m going to talk about Elliot et al.’s study, but first I thought I’d try a little poll. Do CogDaily readers avoid the color red in their workspace? Hide all your windows and look at your desktop background. What’s the dominant color in the picture?
If your desktop doesn’t include any of those colors, just pick the closest one. We’ll soon see if your responses bear any relation to the study results.
Now, on to the study. After a series of six experiments, Elliot’s team arrived at the astonishing conclusion that a brief exposure to the color red does indeed impair performance on several different types of tests. Let’s break down their methods:
The first study was conducted in a lab setting in the U.S. Seventy-one college students were given five minutes to complete a practice anagram test, with fifteen different word-unscrambling problems. Next, the experimenter handed them the real test. This test had a “participant number” written in red, green, or black ink on each page — but the experimenter never saw the color. Instead, she asked the student to make sure the number was written on each page while her back was turned, then left the room for the five-minute test period. Here are the results:
As you can see, the students solved significantly fewer problems when the participant number had been written in red on each page compared to green or black. While this corresponds to just one correct answer, in the context of this test, that’s over a 20 percent difference!
The team’s second study was conducted in the German language in Germany, and involved a completely different test — the analogy section of a German IQ test. This test had 20 questions, and the procedure for controlling the color was changed. After completing a practice test, participants were given a new test booklet and asked to turn to the cover page while the experimenter turned his back to them. Here the word “Analogies” was printed in black ink, either inside a red or green box, or directly on the plain white paper. Here are those results:
Once again, nearly the identical pattern was found. In two successive experiments, this time conducted in a high school classroom, the same result was found again, with the analogy test and then with a mathematical sequencing test. In each experiment, there was a statistically significant difference between red and the other colors, but no difference between gray and green.
In these carefully controlled experiments, the researchers have demonstrated that even brief exposure to the color red does appear to impair performance in a variety of different types of tests!
Elliot’s team also believes it has determined why these results occur, and I report on those experiments in this post.
Elliot, A.J., Maier, M.A., Moller, A.C., Friedman, R., Meinhardt, J. (2007). Color and psychological functioning: The effect of red on performance attainment. Journal of Experimental Psychology: General, 136(1), 154-168. DOI: 10.1037/0096-34188.8.131.52