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Seeing red affects achievement

March 2, 2007
Courtesy University of Rochester
and World Science staff

The col­or red can af­fect how peo­ple func­tion: red means dan­ger, and com­mands us to stop in traf­fic. Psy­chol­o­gists have now found that see­ing red al­so can make us per­form worse on tests. 

Col­or as­so­ci­a­tion are em­bed­ded so deep­ly in us that the sight of red pre­dis­poses us to cer­tain re­ac­tions, the re­search­ers ar­gued in the stu­dy.

The in­ves­ti­ga­tors, An­drew J. El­li­ot of the Uni­ver­si­ty of Roch­es­ter, N.Y. and col­leagues, found that when peo­ple see even a flash of red be­fore a test, they think of mis­takes and fail­ures, then do poor­ly. Red, as most school­chil­dren know, is tra­di­tion­ally used to mark er­rors on school pa­pers. 

“Col­or clear­ly has aes­thet­ic val­ue, but it can al­so car­ry spe­cif­ic mean­ing and con­vey spe­cif­ic in­for­ma­tion,” said El­li­ot. The re­search­ers con­ducted four ex­per­i­ments as­sess­ing the ef­fects of a brief sight of red be­fore an im­por­tant test, such as an IQ test or a ma­jor ex­am. 

The study ap­pears in the Feb­ru­ary is­sue of the Jour­nal of Ex­per­i­men­tal Psy­chol­o­gy.

“Care must be tak­en in how red is used in achieve­ment con­texts,” the re­search­ers wrote. They added that they al­so found red can cause peo­ple to shy away from harder test ques­tions, when giv­en a choice. 

“Col­or car­ries dif­fer­ent mean­ings in dif­fer­ent con­texts,” they wrote. If the con­text changes, the im­pli­ca­tions prob­a­bly do, too, El­li­ott said. A 2005 stu­dy, for in­stance, found that ath­letes are more like­ly to win if they wear red.


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The color red can affect how people function: red means danger, and commands us to stop in traffic. Psychologists have now found that seeing red also can make us perform worse on tests. Color associations are embedded so deeply in us that the sight of red predisposes us to certain reactions, the researchers argued in the study. The invest igators, Andrew J. Elliot of the University of Rochester, N.Y. and colleagues, found that when people see even a flash of red before a test, they think of mistakes and failures, then do poorly. Red ink, as most schoolchildren know, is traditionally used to mark errors on school papers. “Color clearly has aesthetic value, but it can also carry specific meaning and convey specific information,” said Elliot. The researchers conducted four experiments assessing the effects of a brief sight of red before an important test, such as an IQ test or a major exam. The study appears in the February issue of the Journal of Experimental Psychology. “Care must be taken in how red is used in achievement contexts,” the researchers wrote, adding that they also found red can cause people to shy away from harder test questions, when given a choice. “Color carries different meanings in different contexts,” they wrote. If the context changes, the implications probably do, too, Elliott said. A 2005 study, for instance, found that athletes are more likely to win if they wear red.