June 16, 2010

Red Ink Is Bad News

It’s not just unlucky in finance—it turns out those grading with it are less forgiving

By Marjorie Howard

“The idea is if you are holding a red pen, the failure-related words come to mind more easily,” says Michael Slepian. Photo: iStock

Students cringe when they are handed back a paper marked up in red, knowing full well it most likely means a poor grade. But what if the teacher used a different color pen? Would the grade be any different?

It turns out it might well be. “Sometimes just being around certain objects can bring a concept to mind and bring about a corresponding behavior,” says Michael Slepian, a graduate student in psychology and co-author of a recent study measuring the influence of red pens on people grading tests and essays. Slepian and his colleagues hypothesized that since red ink is associated with errors, using a red pen can influence a person’s ideas about errors and poor performance. The study was published in the European Journal of Social Psychology.

First, participants in the study were given incomplete words and had to fill in missing letters. For example, ‘fai_’ could be completed as ‘fail’ or ‘fair’; “wro_” could be ‘wrong’ or ‘wrote.’ Those using red pens completed 28 percent more word-stems with words related to errors and poor performance than did people using black pens. “The idea is if you are holding a red pen, the failure-related words come to mind more easily,” says Slepian.

Next, participants were instructed to correct an essay using either a red or a blue pen. The two-paragraph essay was ostensibly written by a student learning English and contained a number of errors. Slepian and his associates predicted that those using red pens would mark more errors than those using blue pens. In fact, participants using red pens found 27 percent more grammatical and spelling errors than those using blue pens.

“The interesting thing is that this presents two possibilities,” he says. “It makes people more vigilant, and that’s a good thing. On the other hand, maybe they’re being more harsh.”

In the final test, participants were not only marking errors but assigning a grade. In this case, there were no clear errors in the essay. “Here it’s really word choice and phrasing, where subjectivity can come into play,” he says. The result? Those using a red pen gave an average grade of 76, while those grading with a blue pen gave an average of 80.

“When someone is grading a paper, little does the grader know that just holding a red pen leads to a lower grade,” says Slepian. “Objects in our environment can have powerful influences on our behavior.”

Marjorie Howard can be reached at marjorie.howard@tufts.edu.

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