The Situationist

Archive for June 4th, 2010

The Situation of Red Ink

Posted by The Situationist Staff on June 4, 2010

Last week, NPR’s All Things Considered included a story by Guy Raz about California psychology professor Abraham Rutchick‘s study of how people use red and blue pens to grade papers. Rutchick tells host Raz that the red graders were way tougher than those who used blue pens.  Here are some excerpts from the interview (which you can listen at this link).

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GUY RAZ, host: 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.

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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…

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Prof. RUTCHICK: It could be L if you’re using a red pen . . . that seems more likely.

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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.

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You can listen to the interview or read the entire transcript here.  It includes Professor Rutchick’s explanation for why he continues to use a red pen when grading his own students’ work.  For a sample of related Situationist posts, see “The Situation of Being Green,” The Color of Sex Appeal,” “The Primitive Appeal of The Color Red,” and The (Unconscious) Situation of our Consciousness – Part I, Part II, Part III, & Part IV.”

Posted in Education, Embodied Cognition, Implicit Associations, Social Psychology | Tagged: , , | 2 Comments »

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