Yesterday we discussed several experiments offering converging evidence that exposure to the color red, even for brief periods before taking a test, can result in lower achievement. It’s startling research, but as my daughter suggested at breakfast this morning, maybe people are just intimidated by the color red because that’s the color that’s always used for grading.
Aren’t we just conditioned to see red as threatening? That might be part of it, but in nature red also frequently suggests danger. Many poisonous plants and animals are red. Blood is red. Hot coals and lava are red. It’s possible that humans have a biological predisposition to avoid the color red.
In our nonscientific poll conducted yesterday, we asked readers what the dominant color on their computer desktop was. Just 28 out of 550 respondents chose red from our list of 11 colors — about half of what you’d expect if colors were chosen arbitrarily. It’s possible that many computer users simply never change from their computer’s default desktop, but someone (at Microsoft or Apple, for example) had to decide on a default, didn’t they? Why didn’t they choose red?
The team led by Andrew Elliot suspected that avoidance motivated by the color red may be the reason test-takers scored worse on tests marked with red, and they developed an additional two experiments to explore that notion.
In the first experiment, 48 high school students were told they were being given an IQ test. Two sample analogy questions were provided; one difficult and one easy. Next the students turned to the cover sheet of the test, which displayed the word “Analogies” with a red, green, or gray background. They then turned to an instructions page, where they were informed that the test would consist of easy and difficult analogy questions like the ones had just seen. They were likely to get 90 percent of the easy questions correct, but only 50 percent of the difficult ones.
Each student then was allowed to choose how many of the ten test questions would be easy, and how many would be difficult. When the students made their choices, they were told that the experiment was over (and people wonder why psychologists get the reputation for messing with people’s heads!).
So the entire purpose of this experiment was to see if color would influence student’s choice of difficult versus easy test questions. Here are the results:
Students who saw the red test cover chose significantly more easy test questions than either those who saw green or gray test covers. There was no significant difference between the students who saw green and gray.
So it seems that the color red in this context may cause people to avoid challenging or difficult situations. In their final experiment, the researchers took advantage of a robust experimental finding about avoidance. For more than two decades, nearly a hundred studies have found a characteristic brain activity associated with avoidance — asymmetrical activity in the right frontal cortex. This is easily measured using non-invasive EEG equipment.
In this study, 30 college students were fitted with a lycra cap containing the EEG electrodes. They were told they would be taking an IQ test, presented on a computer monitor. The experimenter left the room and the screen was blank for 90 seconds. Then the word “Analogies” was displayed on the identical red, green, or gray background from the previous experiment. Again the screen went blank for 90 seconds while EEG data was recorded. Then the participants were told the experiment was over. Here are the results:
The graph shows the log of frontal asymmetry, and negative values correspond to more activity in the right frontal cortex. There was significantly more right asymmetry when the participants saw the red background than green or gray, and again no difference between green and gray.
So people who see red in the context of test-taking both exhibit avoidance behavior and show the brain activity associated with avoidance.
Elliot’s team argues that this avoidance motivation is very likely the reason for the lower test scores we discussed yesterday, and they claim it has important implications for a world that places increasing emphasis on test scores for determining students’ futures.
They may be right — but there are some limitations to their study. First, all their tests were very short, time-constrained tests. Students were never expected to finish the test, only to complete as many items as possible. This is an unusual testing situation to say the least. While the SAT test, for example, is time-constrained, many students do complete the entire test. This test is much longer than the 5-minute test given in Elliot’s team’s study. Perhaps after a few minutes the impact of the color isn’t as pronounced. This study doesn’t tell us.
Further, it doesn’t tell us whether the red-avoidance behavior is the result of experiences in the classroom or the larger environment — or, for that matter, whether it is biologically part of human nature. The researchers suspect it’s a combination of all of these factors.
Finally, the researchers point out that colors can have very different meanings in different contexts. Red probably doesn’t always motivate avoidance; otherwise the world wouldn’t have so many red wine drinkers. And as one commenter pointed out yesterday, red can have different meanings for different cultures as well.
Still, it’s fascinating research, and it does offer important insight into how fragile and subject to influence those very important test results can be.
One more thing — I’m curious: do most people just stick with the default desktop picture, or do they install one of their own? Time for another poll:
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: 10.1037/0096-3418.104.22.168