GUY RAZ, host:
There is an unmistakable feeling of anxiety at that moment when a teacher hands back tests or term papers scrawled with red ink. But it's not just the anticipation of how you did that causes those jitters, it's actually the red ink.
A new study in the European Journal of Social Psychology suggests that teachers who use red ink to grade papers tend to give students lower grades than those who use a different color of ink.
Abraham Rutchick led that study. He teaches psychology at California State University, Northridge, and he joins me from NPR West in Southern California.
Welcome to the program.
Professor ABRAHAM RUTCHICK (Psychology Department, California State University, Northridge): Thanks for having me.
RAZ: Tell me how you went about studying this theory.
Prof. RUTCHICK: The basic idea is that throughout our lives we get papers handed back to us from teachers with a bunch of corrections on them, and typically they're in red ink.
RAZ: Typically, indeed. Yes.
Prof. RUTCHICK: That happens enough times over the course of our lives that the idea of red ink and red pens and error is in correction, you know, gets sort of lodged in our brains. And so it struck us that the very acts of picking up such a pen if you're using a red pen would activate those ideas again when you go to create something later on.
To test this, what we did is we did a very simple experiment with two conditions. We randomly assigned people to either use a red pen or a pen of a different color. And they, in the first study, simply completed a series of words. So, for instance, F-A-I-blank...
Prof. RUTCHICK: It could be L if you're using a red pen...
Prof. RUTCHICK: ...that seems more likely.
Prof. RUTCHICK: And if you're using, you know, perhaps a blue pen or you're not having failure on the brain, you might write fair, right? And so it could be one or the other. And the degree to which people complete those words is sort of associated with the degree to which this concept has been activated in their brains.
RAZ: So people with red pens tended to write an L at the end of that word and people with blue pens would write an R?
Prof. RUTCHICK: Precisely.
RAZ: Did any of your subjects actually get to grade papers with different colored pens?
Prof. RUTCHICK: Yes. That was just our first study. And our second, they evaluated an essay that had a bunch of errors in it and they were told to mark as many mistakes as they found and they marked more errors using red pens than using blue pens.
RAZ: So when they used blue pens they found fewer errors in...
Prof. RUTCHICK: Fewer errors, yeah, about 19 in this particular essay versus about 24. And our third study, which was really the most striking one, this was one where the essays had no actual objective errors. There were no errors in grammar or spelling; just a bunch of sub-optimal word choices.
RAZ: Everybody had the same essay?
Prof. RUTCHICK: Precisely. So each person comes in they come in individually, of course they each get one essay to read. It's the same essay for everyone. And just before they start, they're given a pen with which to do the corrections and mark the grade and that pen is either red or blue. And we found in this third study that the people with red pens assigned lower grades than the people with blue pens.
RAZ: How wide was the gap between those who had the blue and those who had the red pens? I mean, how wide was the disparity?
Prof. RUTCHICK: It was about four-point to 100-point scale. So the difference between a B-minus and a C-plus.
RAZ: So it was that big simply because of the color of their pens?
Prof. RUTCHICK: Yeah, it is. I mean, these are subjective errors, in a sense. So people are reading this essay and they're deciding kind of freely; there's no obvious answer that this is right and this is wrong. They're kind of deciding how good is this thing? When you have that kind of subjectivity in grading, all sorts of little things can influence you one way or another.
RAZ: What does this tell us about red pens?
Prof. RUTCHICK: Well, it tells us that they're a source of influence that we're usually unaware of. They certainly activate these ideas of failure and wrongness and correction.
RAZ: I mean, how much do you think this is about associations, really? Because to say, you know, all school districts in America all of a sudden said: Okay, all papers have to mark up papers in blue ink. After 20 years or so, wouldn't kids start associating blue ink with marked up papers?
Prof. RUTCHICK: In my view, it is mostly due to the association that's built up over time. It wouldn't happen immediately, of course, but in a couple of decades, as you suggest, that's what would happen. There are a few reasons to believe that maybe red is special in this regard.
They did a study a few years back in the journal Nature where Olympians in combat sports who were wearing red actually were more likely to win. And the author suggested that had to do with red activating aggression, dominance and testosterone.
RAZ: Professor Rutchick, you are a psychology professor at Cal State Northridge, right?
Prof. RUTCHICK: I am.
RAZ: And when you grade papers, what color pen do you use?
Prof. RUTCHICK: I use a red pen, actually. It's - I have to override somehow my urge to be nice and kind.
RAZ: That's psychology Professor Abraham Rutchick of Cal State University, Northridge. He joined me from our studios at NPR West in Southern California.
Professor Rutchick, thanks so much.
Prof. RUTCHICK: Thanks very much for having me, Guy.
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