The Power of Red Pens, Red-Clad Politicians, and Red Sneakers

The following is an article from The Annals of Improbable Research, now in all-pdf form. Get a subscription now for only $25 a year!

The perceived power of red, plumbed
by Stephen Drew, Improbable Research staff

There are many ways to test whether and how the color red conveys influence by some human beings over others. None of these ways is regarded as being definitive. Here are three attempts at exploring the subject.

The Power of Red Ink
“The Pen is Mightier Than The Word: Object Priming of Evaluative Standards,” Abraham M. Rutchick, Michael L. Slepian, and Bennett D. Ferris, European Journal of Social Psychology, vol. 40, no. 5, August 2010, pages 704–708. (Thanks to Scott Langill for bringing this to our attention.) The authors, at California State University, Northridge; Tufts University; and Phillips Exeter Academy, explain:

Because red pens are closely associated with error-marking and poor performance, the use of red pens when correcting student work can activate these concepts. People using red pens to complete a word-stem task completed more words related to errors and poor performance than did people using black pens (Study 1), suggesting relatively greater accessibility of these concepts.

Moreover, people using red pens to correct essays marked more errors (Study 2) and awarded lower grades (Study 3) than people using blue pens. Thus, despite teachers’ efforts to free themselves from extraneous influences when grading, the very act of picking up a red pen can bias their evaluations.

(Image credit: Rachmaninoff)

Red Sneakers of Impressive Business People
“The Red Sneakers Effect: Inferring Status and Competence From Signals of Nonconformity,” Silvia Bellezza, Francesca Gino, and Anat Keinan, Journal of Consumer Research, vol. 41, no. 1, 2014, pp. 35-54. The authors, at Harvard Business School, explain:

This research examines how people react to nonconforming behaviors, such as entering a luxury boutique wearing gym clothes rather than an elegant outfit or wearing red sneakers in a professional setting.... A series of studies demonstrates that people confer higher status and competence to nonconforming rather than conforming individuals.


Absence of Powerful Effect of Politicians in Red
“The Red Power(less) Tie — Perceptions of Political Leaders Wearing Red,” Robin S.S. Kramer, Evolutionary Psychology, vol. 14, no. 2, April-June 2016, pp. 1–8. The author, at the University of York, York, UK, explains:

Viewers watched videos of politicians and made judgments regarding how dominant, how good a leader, and how believable the politicians appeared to be. The colors of the politicians’ ties were digitally manipulated to be red or blue. Whether the politician was familiar (Study 1) or unfamiliar to viewers (Study 2), tie color had no effect on perceptions. Even when the sound was muted in order to increase the influence of visual cues (Study 3), I found no clothing color effect.... These results suggest that, at least in a political setting, wearing red has no effect on perceptions.


This article is republished with permission from the September-October 2016 issue of the Annals of Improbable Research. You can download or purchase back issues of the magazine, or subscribe to receive future issues. Or get a subscription for someone as a gift! Visit their website for more research that makes people LAUGH and then THINK.

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