Why it is never a good idea to write in red.

Why do teachers mark their students’ essays with red pens?  Why is a traffic light stop sign red?  And why is it never a good idea to present a sales leaflet with the text written in red?

Or here’s another one. Why do football teams that play in red win more competitions than teams that play in other colours?

First off, let’s go back to basics: does the colour anything is written in, really make a difference?

The answer is yes, as the following experiment conducted on students in many undergraduate courses in psychology, readily reveals.

A set of 20 psychology students are randomly divided into two groups.  The students don’t know which group they are in, or what the difference between the two groups is. 

Each student is given a card to read for 30 seconds, which contains a set of instructions such as

  • Go out of the door
  • Turn left and go to the end of the corridor
  • Go down the fire escape at the end
  • Turn left, walk around the building and come back in via Entrance C
  • Enter room 14 on your right
  • Take a plastic cup and fill it with water
  • Come up the main staircase with the cup
  • Take the cup into room 34
  • Place the cup on the table
  • Take a piece of paper and pen you will find there, and write your name on the paper
  • Place the paper on a table and place the cup with water in it on top, making sure that the cup is not over your name, but is nevertheless on the paper.
  • Return to this room, and say to your lecturer, “Job completed”.  It is important to say these exact words.

One at a time the students are given the card and read it for 30 seconds, before setting out on their journey.  Monitors are placed in several strategic places, checking the progress of each student.

The difference between Group A and Group B is that Group A students have their instructions written in black on a white sheet of paper. Group B students have their instructions written in red on white paper.

It is important to note that the students do not carry the card with them – they have to read the instructions and then hand back the card and undertake the task.  It is also important to note that the students do not know what the test is trying to show, nor that there are in fact two card types – one with black print and one with red print.

The students start their task a minute apart, so that they don’t bump into each other, and those returning are kept apart from those still waiting to go.

The result of the exercise is invariably that the students who get the card with red writing make many more errors (usually about 30% more) than the students who see the card with black writing at the start of the activity.  The students with red are more likely to forget that the drink cup should be on a piece of paper, or that the cup must not cover the writing, or the exact phrase to be used at the end of the task.  Some even take the wrong turning or go into the wrong room.

Which leads back to the question: why is red a problem?  Certainly most of us, if faced with a page of red writing, or indeed even a paragraph of red text, will fail to read it properly. 

The explanations offered for this finding fall into two groups. One explanation says that red is associated with blood, and seeing blood suggests we have an injury and need help – so it is a warning colour.

The other explanation notes that red is at one end of the spectrum of visible light and so is harder to see.

No one knows for sure which explanation is true, or if there is another explanation, but the fact is that red is a problem for most of us.  If you want whatever you are writing and whatever you want to place in store to be read in the future, don’t write it in red.

As to the issue with the football teams, even when all other factors are matched, teams that play in red are found to do better than teams that play in blue, green, white, yellow or maroon.  I’ll leave you to work out why.

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