Red ink on an essay you spent three weeks researching gives one a gut wrenching feeling when it comes back from your professor with a “C.” New research by a Cal State Northridge professor suggests that “C” could have been a “B-,” had it been graded with a blue pen.
In their research, published in the European Journal of Social Psychology, CSUN psychology professor Abraham Rutchick, Tufts University graduate student Michael Slepian and Bennett Ferris who suggests that “the very act of picking up a red pen can bias their [teachers’] evaluations.”
In one experiment, 103 volunteers were given a two-paragraph essay, and told to correct any spelling and grammatical errors they found. Half were given pens with red ink, while the other half were given pens with blue ink. Those using the red ink marked more errors than those using the blue.
In another, similar experiment, 129 students were given a one-page essay written by an eighth grader. The paper contained no spelling or grammatical errors, but the language was at a basic level. They were asked to grade the paper on a scale from 0-100. Once again, those marking with red ink gave the paper a less favorable grade than those using the blue ink.
Rutchick said the idea for the study came about when Ferris, then a student at Phillips Exeter Academy Summer School, asked about the effect of everyday objects on behavior. “It was while I was teaching a summer class; we were talking about some of my other research (on the effect of polling place on voting behavior), and Bennett proposed this study,” said Rutchick.
Red ink is associated with fail-marks, therefore, “using red pens increases the cognitive accessibility of failure-relevant concepts,” according to the research. Other factors were also accounted for, such as red being associated with aggression, which conceivably may increase graders’ testosterone levels making them more assertive and critical.
Though their research notes that the volunteers for their research were not trained teachers, they concluded that “it seems sensible to avoid presenting students’ work covered in a color automatically associated with failure and negativity.”
When asked if he used red ink to grade papers, Rutchick said, “I actually use red. My natural instinct is to be too nice, so red pens might counteract it! In seriousness, though, being aware of the effect might reduce its impact.”
Rutchick has been teaching psychology at Cal State Northridge since fall of 2008. He received his B.S. in biology and psychology from Tufts University, and his master’s and Ph.D. in psychology from UC Santa Barbara.
California State University, Northridge has more than 33,000 full- and part-time students and offers 66 bachelor’s and 52 master’s degrees as well as 28 teaching credential programs. Founded in 1958, CSUN is among the largest single-campus universities in the nation and the only four-year public university in the San Fernando Valley. The university serves as the intellectual, economic and cultural heart of the Valley and beyond.