Written in Red

Photo by Crystl. Used under Creative Commons license.

Photo by Crystl. Used under Creative Commons license.

The end of the semester is grading season, and not coincidentally, colored-pens-running-out-of-ink season. I found myself apologizing to a student today because I had commented on her paper in red – one of the few colored pens I had left, because I try to avoid using them. My student joked about how her paper looked like it was bleeding (although it was nowhere near this bad), and I wondered about why I avoid red in the first place. Are students really more receptive to my comments if they come in a soothing green?

The claims about the color red can get pretty far-fetched. Just a few years ago there was a flurry of discussion over claims that wearing red uniforms somehow helps you win at sports, a claim initially founded on red sexual features of our fellow primates (which is not why we can see red; the red-testosterone link seems to take advantage of our red perception to create colorful displays). It’s hard to accept that the color of your shirt can really help you win, and other claims about red therefore get tarred with the same cynical (black) brush.

But other researchers are more cautious in their claims, focusing on learned associations of “red=bad” and conducting multiple careful studies to support their claims. One particularly relevant study pointed out that “red is associated with…the psychological danger of failure” – stoplights, fire alarms, and of course the red ink of graded schoolwork. The researchers involved thought that seeing red would therefore activate a fear of failure – and, ironically, make failure more likely, probably by similar mechanisms as stereotype threat.

Red ink turned out to be a powerful tool. Just seeing a red label on an anagrams task reduced performance (compared to either black or green, which were the same), and a red cover page impaired solving analogies and solving math problems. The red doesn’t seem to have made anyone angry or active, but they were more likely to ask for “easy” analogies than medium-difficulty or hard ones. And just in case you’re still skeptical, some carefully placed electrodes showed more right front hemisphere activation when looking at red – the pattern observed with more negative emotions.

The complete pictures is very compelling evidence that red elicits an emotional reaction that can hurt performance. It certainly suggests red-inked work shouldn’t be handed back at the beginning of class, and it’s no stretch of the imagination to see how red ink could make students disinclined to really read or respond to those comments I sacrifice so many pens to write. It doesn’t matter if the association is learned – after all, some synesthetes‘ letter-color pairings are set by fridge magnets, so learned color associations are clearly powerful things.

And so the rest of my grading this evening was done in blue glitter-ink, the only non-red pen I had left. I’m not sure what impression that will create on my students, but at least I can be confident that scientific research hasn’t tackled the glitter question as thoroughly as the red one.

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