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March 9, 2012

Red & Lower Test Scores

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As final exams loom, here's a study worth some study-- psychology researchers say seeing even a glimpse of the color red can affect test performance. This ScienCentral News video explains.

Seeing Red

Most of us understand seeing red means stop, or warns us of danger. Now University of Rochester psychology professor Andrew Elliot is warning teachers to be careful with those red pens. His research indicates we associate all that red ink with failure.

"So when you're a student in third grade and you get a paper back and it's bleeding, right? That means you've made a lot of mistakes," Elliot says. He thinks that's one explanation for why he and his colleague, Arlen Moller, found that seeing even a glimpse of the color red before a test makes test-takers do worse.

In one experiment, they gave volunteers a quiz that had a number in either red or green on the corner. In another, volunteers saw a glimpse of red, green, or grey on the cover of an IQ test. Those who saw red got fewer answers right on average.

Psychologists Arlen Moller (left) and Andrew Elliot (right) found that seeing even a glimpse of the color red before a test makes test-takers do worse.
As they wrote in the Journal of Experimental Psychology, while red's effect is not huge, it is consistent.

"We've shown this now in our lab probably 10 times, or even more, and shown variants of it-- red versus different colors, red on different types of tests, red in Germany versus red in the United States, and we find it's a very consistent effect," Elliot says. "Red undermines performance on any kind of intellectually oriented test."

The volunteers in the experiments were only told they were taking tests, and the researchers showed that the test-takers were unaware of red's effects.

"We even asked them how they thought they did on the test and there was no difference between the red and the green condition at all, so clearly people aren’t aware at all that the color is having an effect on their performance," says Elliot. "They can't report it, they can't even report that they did worse, but they are doing worse."

Elliot says seeing red causes what psychologists call "avoidance motivation," in which 'trying to avoid doing poorly, ironically leads to doing poorly," he explains. "It's ironic because you would think that if you have a goal, it would be easy to accomplish it, but with avoidance its not so easy. So imagine yourself in a test, taking an IQ test, and your goal is to try to avoid looking stupid…

Volunteers saw a glimpse of red, green, or grey on the cover of an IQ test. Those who saw red got fewer answers right on average.
"What ends up happening is that you worry, you have a lot of interference, you're not able to dive into what you're supposed to be focusing on and that ends up making you do worse."

Elliot says previous studies have failed to demonstrate red's effect, but they also failed to control the colors people saw. "Several people over the past couple of decades have taken a look at whether color affects performance, usually in work settings. For instance, they would put red or some other color on a wall and see if performance of employees was better or worse relative to some other color," he explains.

"The problem is, color has three different properties: hue, saturation and brightness."

"Hue is what you typically think of as color. Saturation is how dense or pure the color is, and brightness is how bright it is. And other research has not controlled for saturation and brightness when looking at the effects of hue… We thought if we were able to control for saturation and brightness, we could give it a very crisp, clean and powerful test," he says.

So Elliot invested in an instrument more commonly found in a chemistry or physics lab than a psychology department.

"We did that using what's called a spectrophotometer, which measures very precisely the spectral data from a light source. So we were able to create a test that had a red cover that was equal in saturation and brightness to another test that had a green cover," Elliot says. "Scientifically, the bottom line is we were able to show that it's hue, meaning what you typically think of as color, not saturation and brightness, that led to our effect."

Elliot proposes three possible reasons why red would undermine performance through avoidance motivation.

Number one is that red pen.

"There is a very specific association between red and mistakes and failures of people in achievement situations because teachers have graded in red over time," he says. Second, there's an association in general between red and danger, or red and avoidance, with stop signs and stop lights and brake lights and terrorist alert systems" he says.

"And finally-- and this is a little bit out there-- but we thought it's possible that red might have a similar effect in humans that it has in the wild, with primates. So in certain primates, red is a dominance or superiority cue."

"When two geladas-- say in the wild, wanting the same mate, competing for a mate or territory -- one that’s dominant or larger will, through a testosterone surge, show red on its chest or face, and that's a cue that the other ape should avoid that ape because it's more powerful. In other words, in the wild primates view red in competitive contexts as an avoidance signal-- get away, danger. So we thought, to the extent there's a link between us and primates, evolutionary psychology supports that link, it may be the case that red, on a biological, non-conscious level, may lead people to avoid in competitive contexts."

Elliot says if that is the case, it would mean that even knowing about the effects of red might not help us curb its effect.

He does suggest that teachers who grade in red consider using some other colors.

"We don’t think about color having an effect on our behavior, but what we're finding in this research is that color really does carry meaning," says Elliot. "Color is a signal," he says. "And those signals can affect our behavior automatically without us even being aware of it."

So while athletes might want their opponents to see red in the big game, students may want to avoid red before the big test.

Elliot's research was published in the February 2007 edition of the Journal of Experimental Psychology and funded by the William T. Grant Foundation.

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