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Seeing Red

April 4, 2007

The color red affects people’s performance on tests.


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.

ANDREW ELLIOT (University of Rochester):
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 they 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.