In Brief

Most people never forget their first-grade teacher. And most never forget that teacher's red ink on their work, and the feeling of failure it spurred, suggest findings from a study in the February Journal of Experimental Psychology: General (Vol. 136, No. 1).

The study examined red's influence on performance in achievement contexts in which both success and failure are possible. The results indicate that even just a brief glimpse of red before a test lowers performance, says the study's lead author Andrew Elliot, PhD, a professor of psychology at the University of Rochester.

Researchers investigated the effects of red on test performance in six experiments with 282 U.S. and German undergraduate and high school students. In one experiment, participants completed a testing packet of 15 moderately difficult anagrams. Each packet included a red, green or black participant number, written in the upper right corner of each page of the packet.

Experimenters told participants to verify the number on each page to ensure they looked at the number before beginning the test. Participants who viewed a red participant number performed worse on the anagram test than those who viewed green or black numbers on their packets. Those who viewed green or black numbers performed about the same.

Red, says Elliot, seems to provoke test-takers to avoid failure, which brings on anxiety and distracts them from the task.

Elliot offers three possible explanations for the poor performance:

  • Students may have learned the negative association with red from teachers marking mistakes in red throughout elementary and middle school.

  • People may have a more deep-seated perception of red as a danger signal--at stop lights and on alarms, for example.

  • Our evolutionary past may have primed us to associate red with avoidance, as evidenced in the biological tendency for wild apes to turn parts of their face or chest red as a sign of dominance when squaring off with another ape for a mate or territory.

Regardless of the motivation, the findings suggest that educators use red judiciously, the researchers say. Even something as seemingly innocuous as an SAT test proctor's red shirt, for example, could affect students' test performance and college-acceptance prospects.

"It would be ideal for teachers to use a variety of different colors to mark mistakes so that failure doesn't get associated with a specific color in an achievement context," Elliot says.

--A. Cynkar