Seeing Red

Seeing Red

When you bomb a test or write a bad essay, it often gets marked up in red ink. But can the color red actually set you up for failure?


Can a color drag down test scores? I'm Bob Hirshon and this is Science Update.

Seeing red doesn't really make a bull charge, but it might make a person botch a test. This according to University of Rochester psychologist Andrew Elliot. He and his colleagues found that people who saw even a brief glimpse of red on the cover of an IQ test scored worse than those who saw green or black. People with the red tests also picked easier questions when given a choice.


We also did an experiment where we hooked people up to electrodes, and this is crudely stated, but we showed that the avoidance part of the brain lights up when people saw red on the IQ test.

As to why, we associate red with stop and danger signs, terror alerts, and the ink teachers use to mark mistakes. Elliot suspects that this makes us anxious about failure when we see red, which in turn makes us more mistake prone and risk averse. I'm Bob Hirshon, for AAAS, the science society.

Making Sense of the Research

Colors pack a metaphorical punch, and one color may have many different meanings. If we feel sad, we say we're blue, or even sing the “blues.” The image of blue skies, on the other hand, evokes happiness, peace, and optimism. Calling someone “green” might mean she's jealous, or inexperienced, or environmentally conscious, depending on the context.

Red also can suggest many things, including love, anger, and passions. But in a classroom, you generally don't want to see red, since it usually comes in the form of red ink on the wrong answer to a test. In fact, red is used as a sign of danger or wrongness in many contexts. For example, in stop signs and stoplights, in warning signs, and in expressions like “red flag” (for a bad sign in anything from a job application to a first date), “red tape” (for bureaucratic hassle), and “red ink” (for debt). It's no coincidence that the Department of Homeland Security chose red as the color of the highest terror alert.

Elliot's team decided to find out if these negative associations with red could actually affect a person's performance on a test. Their experiment was simple, but carefully designed. All of the volunteers took an IQ test. The tests were identical except for the first page, which had the word “TEST” on it. In some cases, the word TEST was on a red background. In others, the background was either green or black.

These colors weren't just picked randomly. Elliot chose green because it's used in traffic signals and many other contexts as a sign to go ahead, as opposed to red, which tells you to stop or turn back. Furthermore, he made sure that the shades of green and red used in the experiments differed only in hue: that is, the color itself. The red and green were identical in the two other properties of color: saturation (purity) and brightness. His team even checked these color properties on a scientific instrument called a spectrophotometer. He chose black as the third color because its hue is zero; in other words, it has no color at all.

The result? On average, people who saw just a glimpse of red on the cover of the test scored about a point worse, on a ten-point scale, than people who saw either green or black. (Despite green's positive connotations, seeing green didn't appear to improve scores). Further experiments showed that when given the choice, people who saw red would choose easier questions to answer. This, combined with the brain research, supports Elliot's theory that red triggers a kind of behavior called avoidance motivation. Basically, this means you make choices in order to avoid danger or failure, rather than to achieve success. Although that may sound like a safer strategy, other research shows that avoidance motivation actually hurts your performance on all kinds of tasks, because you think so hard about trying not to mess up that it interferes with what you're doing.

One aspect of the study that was assumed, but not proven, is that people actually associate the color red with failure. Now, Elliot and his colleagues are testing that assumption scientifically. For example, they're showing volunteers words associated with either failure or success in a variety of colors. Psychological theory suggests that if we really do associate red with failure on a deep level, we'll identify and categorize failure words faster if they're in red letters.

Now try and answer these questions:

  1. What hypothesis was tested in this experiment? State your answer as clearly and concisely as possible.
  2. Why did the researchers choose the three colors used in the experiment? Why match the saturation and brightness of the red and green? What if they hadn't done that?
  3. Why is it important to test the assumption that we associate red with failure? Why use an experiment like the one described in the last paragraph, rather than simply asking people?
  4. Suppose further studies show that seeing red does impair performance, but that we don't really associate red with failure. What question would you try to answer next? How?

You may want to check out the April 6, 2007, Science Update Podcast to hear further information about this Science Update and the other programs for that week. This podcast's topics include: life-and-death decisions from computers, video games are good and bad, seeing red hurts test scores, Dr. Tatiana on animal sex, and the link between obesity and puberty in girls.

For Educators

The “Mozart Effect”: A Psychological Research Methods Case, from the National Center for Case Study Teaching in Science, uses the supposed “Mozart Effect” on school performance as a case study in the scientific method.

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