From the paper abstract:
Red is hypothesized to impair performance on achievement tasks, because red is associated with the danger of failure in achievement contexts and evokes avoidance motivation. Four experiments demonstrate that the brief perception of red prior to an important test (e.g., an IQ test) impairs performance, and this effect appears to take place outside of participants’ conscious awareness. Two further experiments establish the link between red and avoidance motivation as indicated by behavioral (i.e., task choice) and psychophysiological (i.e., cortical activation) measures. The findings suggest that care must be taken in how red is used in achievement contexts and illustrate how color can act as a subtle environmental cue that has important influences on behavior.Presumably this is known to psychologists, but we didn't know it -- there's a lot of empirical research done on the effects of color on performance and productivity, and some older theoretical work on color and psychological functioning. A 1942 paper described physiological effects of certain colors in psychiatric patients, with, e.g., red and yellow being experienced as "stimulating and disagreeable" and serving to "focus the individual on the outward environment, whereas green and blue are "quieting and agreeable and focus individuals inward."
Apparently not much work was done on this between then and the work reported in 2007, and replicated a number of times since then (though much of it by Elliot and colleagues). Various hypotheses about the effect of color on mood had been proffered, but based, according to Elliot et al., on suspect premises and not rigorously tested. Naturally enough, people have tried to find differential effects of pink vs blue, but with no significant results. So, in 2007, the time was ripe for a rigorous test of the effect of color on performance. (The things people can get funding for.)
The idea they tested, in six different experiments, was that red is culturally associated with danger -- stoplights, fire alarms (fire alarms?), and warning signs -- and red marks on school papers are associated with the psychological danger of failing, so that exposure to red will elicit failure. The idea that the association becomes causation seems a bit of a stretch, and even a logical fallacy, but apparently the psychological literature is replete with examples of just this; exposure to a negative object associated with failure causes fear of avoiding failure, which produces anxiety, which impacts performance -- i.e., causes failure. And of course this is all subconscious.
Well, so much for logical fallacies, apparently. Each of the experiments, described at length in the paper, "provide strong support for our hypothesized effect of red on performance." Not only did they measure the effect of color on achievement test results, but also, with EEG, discovered that different parts of the brain were activated after red vs green exposure.
On the 20 question IQ test, the 15 participants in red conditions did significantly worse than those in green conditions; the former got an average of 10 or so questions correct, while the latter got an average of 13+ correct. This same basic trend was observed for each of the experiments. Not, it must be said, wildly different, but a trend. Elliot et al. suggest that their findings have social consequences as achievement tests are "filtering devices in society." They propose that cultural influences, such as our response to color, on achievement are profound.
If these results are true -- and it's hard to tell from the paper whether the effect on IQ scores themselves would be significant -- and if IQ scores are so readily influenced by psychological factors, then what are these tests actually measuring? Most arguments about IQ have to do with 'racial disparities,' the difference in mean scores by race, and whether that is innate or cultural, but if, e.g., a test proctor is wearing red, and red does have an effect, it would be on everyone in the room, not just one race. That is, everyone in cultures for whom red is a danger signal. If this effect is real -- and if it is, this doesn't mean that the explanation offered in the Elliot paper for it is necessarily correct -- these results would point to an inherent instability in IQ scores due to unmeasured confounders, whether or not you believe IQ itself is real. This, of course, is something that plagues many many types of studies.
The persistence of gene-worship in the face of these facts is somewhat striking. A gene devotee would say that we knew that not all of a trait is genetics. The 'heritability' or fraction of the variation that is due to genetic variation is usually around 40%. This doesn't mean that a particular genotype accurately predicts a particular trait, like IQ, but it means there are other factors. Perhaps seeing red is one of them. This should pull some of the obsession away from genetics, because we don't know these factors well, there are many of them, and they may change rapidly in our culture, unlike genes, so that the predictive power of genes also changes correspondingly since genetic effects are mediated by these other, changeable, factors.
In any case, a quick review of the literature suggests that in sports red is associated with success -- apparently this is well-known. In competitive sports, that is; red swim suits are good, and red soccer shirts, red t-shirts for any sport. Red either makes you win, or makes your opponent lose, depending on your interpretation of the studies of this. If the latter, then clearly the competitor sporting red just can't look down.
Hey, it worked when Ibrahimovic was playing for Barcelona!
|Zlotan Ibrahimmovic, when he played for Barcelona|
But here, Ibrahimovic is in gold, and the goalie in red.... (and, by the way, he's making what some have said is the best goal ever scored.)