Does the color red really impair performance on tests?

Blogging on Peer-Reviewed ResearchOne 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: 10.1037/0096-3445.136.1.154

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Just FYI: I said "black" but it's a skyscape (Three Galaxies and a Comet) and Purple or even White would have been accurate.

Also, I've had students *ask* that I use red, not green. for corrections; makes them "hit home" and "sink in", they said. This is also anecdotal and FYI...

But there's a difference, I'd think, between correcting in red and what this study is about - this is red BEFORE the test.

This is totally on the spot. I've always been a very good test taker, and {totally not related?} I usually pay very close attention to how I feel at all times. After reading your article, I can't help but say that my past experiences support your observations.

On a slightly different note. I know we have very strong emotional responses to colors. I worked at Staples for almost a year...and I am STILL 'allergic' to the color red in large quantities.


What about those who simply do not change the desktop background after buying a computer?

In that case, what is the dominate color chosen by Microsoft, Apple, etc.?

In the case of the Ubuntu Linux distribution, I believe that their default backgrounds follow the color scheme belonging to Ubuntu as a whole, namely a brownish color which I think is a bit ugly.

Do you think this might affect the results?

I couldn't even remember what the picture on my desktop at work was. It's been so long since it was even visible. The predominant color while I'm working is black: the default background color of the modeling software that I use. It's easy on the eyes.

I also liked getting corrections in red on my papers. Blue or even green seemed to blend in with the text, and I had the tendency to skip over some comments.

This is an interesting survey, considering between work and home, I have three monitors, each with differently-colored backgrounds: blue, red, brown.

I wonder if it's also a question of people avoiding red, so much as just not changing the default wallpaper.

The choice of black for my background is an environmental/economic one. Black uses less energy.

Mark, do you use a CRT monitor? Otherwise I'm pretty sure that doesn't work. LCD monitors mainly consume energy via the backlight, which is always on, no matter the color of the pixels it illuminates.

Uriel/Ryan -- you may be right. I think both Windows and Macs (pre-Leopard) have predominantly blue default desktops. Also, another factor may be skewing results. Most outdoor pictures will be dominated by blue sky. I experienced this when installing Leopard on my mac -- I didn't like the way the transparent menubar looked with a blue background, so I spent quite a bit of time looking for a desktop photo that did *not* have a blue sky, and in the end had to resort to a hack that made my menubar non-transparent.

But even dismissing the blue results, red falls pretty far down the list in desktop background color choices.

I have ADD which means I don't see all the words on a page and a learning disability which makes it difficult to read black print on white paper. The best colors for me to see on the computer screen are a fluorescent yellow background with bold red print. Red is the only color I can easily see for corrections or comments on a printed page.

I read an article once that indicated that at some time in the future colors will replace stimulant medications for ADD which help you focus. Obviously that is not too realistic, but I place the concept in the "Star Trek" part of my brain that thinks maybe in several hundred years the technology might be developed and such a thing might be possible. Colors that are supposed to be "warm" literally depress me and bring down my mood.

What does this imply about Chinese civilization, which exalts red as the emperor's color? ;-)

By Chris Crawford (not verified) on 12 Nov 2007 #permalink

And why didn't the Redcoats win the Revolutionary War? ;-)

By Chris Crawford (not verified) on 12 Nov 2007 #permalink

This is interesting. The colors of my high school's rival school were red and white, and now in college, our rival (to remain unnamed) is still red and white, so for the last five years of my life, I've been in a social situation where there the color red is a stigma. So I wonder if red would impair my performance on tests more or less than usual...

I just print my essays in red ink. Saves everyone a lot of time.

Interestingly, in Chinese culture, it is believed that you need to surround yourself with red-colored things to fend off the bad vibe when the lunar calendar warns of bad fortune for that year. And my young friends from China still practice that.

I wonder if those studies will turn out different results if conducted in another culture (such as China) where the cultural meaning of "red" differs.

Or, whether any sort of priming manipulation can change the results.

(Hope researchers don't offer an evolutionary account before they look more broadly)

About graphs - whats about SD and confidence intervals there? (sadly, I have no access to full text)

And when I was six - we have red marks for '5' or '4' (A or B) and black points for anything less '3' in our elementary school...

PS: here my desktop picture (at work). White snow and RED apples...

I had an orange background for now, because I had a picture (probably not its 'real' color, but rather a 'false color' image) of Venus that looked orange. But before this, I often used a green colored background - a leaf to be exact. Reddish hues do make me feel 'hot', 'agitated' or 'nervous', while bluish hues make me feel 'calm', 'relaxed', and 'cold', depending on the situation. Perhaps that's why red is more 'intimidating'.

Today my background picture has orange for the dominant color (and that's how I voted in the poll), although more of the picture may actually be gray-brown. My wallpaper changes daily through a set of photos from the Smokey Mountains. I am definitely NOT avoiding red at work today because it is bow season and I have to do field work (getting shot would really be a bummer). Hopefully, by next week I'll have an orange vest.

By marciepooh (not verified) on 13 Nov 2007 #permalink

hmm, very interesting article. I'm not sure if red affects me or not, but I do know when preparing for tests, I mark myself in red - possibly because that is what teachers do, or maybe because it stands out more from the blue/black ink.

I wonder if it has to be bold/bright red to have affect on performance, because in our uni all our exams are printed on pink paper.

Oh, and coming from an Asian background, I get confused at times with what the Chinese think about the colour red...during Chinese New Year/Festive events, "red" is the colour for prosperity, wealth, good will etc etc - however as a child I was told...NEVER write names in red, because it's bad luck/death etc.

Similarly, from what I've seen, red is also seen as 'love' (heart) and 'death' (blood) in many cultures...

If you look at my corporate website, you'll see that we don't avoid red. Our official color is PMS 1807, a variation of burgundy, which is also the color of the walls of my office. Dare I say that long-term exposure to red does not impair workplace performance.

This is absolutely ridiculous. *IF* there is a negative reaction to the color red in academic settings (which I doubt), it is likely only because it has been used in so much of the United States to make wrong answers on tests throughout most people's school years. Which would mean switching to a different color to grade tests (green, purple, blue, or any other) would probably only cause an adverse reaction to those colors in the future, once a student frequently sees corrections in the new color.

And don't even get me started on potential problems in the testing methods in the experiments described.

By stephanie (not verified) on 13 Dec 2007 #permalink