Why does seeing red make test-takers choke?

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

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Too few options in the poll. Mine came with a default selected, but also a selection of alternates. I use three accounts, so I picked a different desktop for each account (and a different position for the dock).

Very interesting. It reminded me of another test which Gladwell writes in Blink. A group of African Americans and Europian Americans were made to an IQ test. The average score was not different for each group. In the second round they were asked questions about their race and how they felt it impacted their performance. When they took the test after these questions were asked, the average score of African Americans were much lower then European Americans.

I wonder how many poll participants picked a picture, not a color. For example, my dominant desktop color is blue, because I'm looking at a picture of Earth from space. A colleague's has a dominant color of reddish-blonde, because she's looking at a profile of her son.

It is true we seem to reserve red for warnings or punishment in our world, but I'm not ready to jump to any biological explanation.

Culture was mentioned, and I'd like to point out an enjoyable place to look at a counter example. Two artists surveyed people the world over to come to a consensus about what people like and don't like in their paintings, then proceeded to create the "most" and "least" appealing paintings for different countries. Their approach was cutesy and I can't speak to their survey techniques, but their results are fun.


Perhaps notably, the Dutch stand out as the only people preferring the abstract and including more red in their "most" desired painting.

Red tends to bloom in the vision, so it makes things hard to read. I tend to have a green background of grass or mossy rocks (biophilia) but occasionally I will have a muted red background. I notice that backgrounds have a big difference on my mood state.

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

Where I work, the background picture for the admin/root account is predominately red (Zapotec on Windows, Abstract 6 on Macintosh). Intended as a reminder that the admin account is in use.

My answer to the dominant background colour yesterday was green (home computer). It would probably be red today (aerial view of Florence with the Duomo in the foreground).

I'm betting the context in which red is being viewed (i.e., academic testing situation) does much for activating implicit memories of pre-secondary school days where teachers may have frequently made corrections to student's work with those plastic red pens. This research does indeed seem like a variation on stereotype threat as suggested by commenter #2, and could almost be called color red threat.

I'd be curious to see what the test results would look like if instead of having just a red, green, or gray background for the test covers, you instead put small pictures of Rudolph, Santa, an apple, bottle of wine, cherries, rose, and heart and appropriate features in either red, green, or gray. In such a context, I'd bet there would either be a benefit for seeing red or no impact of red on test performance relative to the other colors.

By Tony Jeremiah (not verified) on 13 Nov 2007 #permalink

You forgot Chinese "red for go" traffic lights. Maybe you should repeat some experiments in the PRC.

Desktops should generally be unsaturated. Unsaturated red (let's call it "pink") is a generally unattractive colour. I tried green for a few years, but it often seemed more like khaki, depending on lighting conditions. Unsaturated blues seem less susceptible to lighting conditions (and of course it's a complementary colour to yellow; most artificial lighting has a distinctly yellow illuminant). Any maybe we are used to looking at paintings and photographs where the background plane is blue (sky or sea).

The first colour desktop I think I ever saw was black, on Apollos in the early 80's. The first unsaturated blue colour desktop I saw was the default for beta releases of Sun's NeWS window system in the mid-80's.

By Ian Kemmish (not verified) on 13 Nov 2007 #permalink

Warm colors seize attention and are generally distracting. People's focus tends to gravitate towards them in short-duration scenarios, as my tenth-grade science project tested. The experiment consisted of three wheels of identically-sized color wedges arranged in three different patterns of proximity, flashed to subjects for about half a second at three different rotation-positions each. First noticed was neon orange, then neon yellow, then pumpkin orange, fire engine red, robin's egg blue (which is more saturated than sky blue, at least in the color swatches I was using), lemon yellow, mint green, crimson, and grass green. The brown, black, and navy blue were never identified as the first color the subject noted (ever, not for nine flashes to forty subjects), and rarely as one of the colors they remembered when given ten seconds to list the colors they remembered. Warm colors, bright colors, glowy highly-saturated colors -- these vie for attention. (I find it's still worse with illuminated computer monitors/TV screens/etc.) If one wants to minimize distraction, it makes sense to avoid them. This isn't necessarily a manifestation of fear in non-school settings.

I have many red items around me right now. Two chairs, a large picture frame, a telephone, and a Warhol print. This is fine for much of everyday life. I'm wearing a bright red hoodie, even. It's when I'm trying to study and work that I need to tone down the surrounding colors because they distract me.

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

(Also, white was in there somewhere, but I can't for the life of me place it in the rankings. Middle-ish placement, I believe. And when dull, dark colors were listed in the ten-second recitation, more than half of those instances -- I forget how much more -- were cases where the wheel dominated by intentional dark color/bright light color juxtaposition had been presented last.)

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

Red does have different meanings in different cultures. E.g. For Chinese, red can mean "fortune, good luck, etc." That's why Chinese celebrations always involve red decorations. I also find pure red on the desktop to "easily catch people's attention", and sometimes pure red desktops can 'feel' overwhelming to my eyes, while light blue and other 'pale-feeling' colors don't.

I make stained glass windows and think all day everyday about what transmitted colored light means and does. People have black desktops?--OUCH! Mine is a yellow ochre color, soothing, nondistracting.

Light is perceived differently if it's a reflected light or transmitted light situation. And of course a huge amount depends on context, color relationships.
Its all about wavelengths.
I'm probably all wrong about this stuff, but its something to consider.

And whynotred? Blue halates more than red, usually anyay. Red is rather contained, but more vibrating and pulsing (sometimes). Hard to read for sure but noticable.

Interesting experiment... All this desktop got me thinking, "why not red?"

I decided to change the color to a bright red... it feels weird looking at the screen now. I find myself looking elsewhere. I don't think it will last till the end of the day.

The problem is now I can't help but wonder if I'm primed to avoid the red desktop due to this post!

By joelmckellar (not verified) on 14 Nov 2007 #permalink

I think the question of whether this effect is cultural or biological is still important. One suggestion would be to try the experiment out in China - in the chinese culture, red as a colour has strong positive connotations. Hence, it would seem that the effect should be reversed, if it is in fact a matter of cultural conditioning.

(As I type this, I notice that it's already been said. Dammit.)

Chinese traffic lights are not red to go. (Though the drivers there sometimes seem unaware of that!) However, the reversal appears in other things, most alarmingly in stock tickers.

Reminds me of a study showing that sports competitors wearing red disproportionately beat opponents in blue.

Another study failed to find testosterone level differences between athletic competitors in red vs. those in another color. Could it be that the red shirts psych out the opponents?

That seems to contradict a 1966 study by Shatner, Nimoy, et. al - among subjects in unfamiliar conflict environments, a statistically significant increase in mortality among individuals wearing red shirts was demonstrated.

By Spaulding (not verified) on 14 Nov 2007 #permalink

And also, fruit are red. Which is of highest importance for frugivorous animals, as early hominids were supposed to be. It might even be the reason why primates evolved red-sensitive cones in their retina. However, it might be true that once given the ability to distinguish red from other shades we associated it to threat but it may also be that red is a signal of social interaction especially competitve and/or sexual (cf. anger, blushing, anogenital swlling during oestrus), which triggers fast-emotional reactions at the expense of cold-cognitive thinking.

I must tell you all that I am continually impressed with how intelligent your comments are. I love to visit this blog just to read people's responses to the articles. Rarely is there a response that doesn't offer some sagacious insight to the subject at hand.
I personally would like to read a study about people's favorite colors. What percentage of the study base like blue? What percentage like red? But more complex than that, I'd like that to see that tracked through all age groups. Do your favorite colors change with age? Perhaps a child is more likely to prefer red than a pubescent teenager or a middle aged man. I'm sure that the results(at lease for some period of life) would be different for girls and boys owing, if for no other reason, to the amount of social conditioning children are put through. Potentially the earliest example being, of course, the pink or blue baby clothes we are dressed in at birth. Intriguing subject.

I wonder if children with cognitive-communicative disabilities would do worse on classroom content when exposed to the color red?