embodied cognition: common sense or something startling? part one – seeing red
Canto: So I’ve just read a book that details experiments highlighting the effects of, for example, colour, odour, physical comfort and ’embodied metaphors’ on mood, decision-making and creative thinking…
Jacinta: Embodied metaphors?
Canto: I’ll explain later, or not. What I want to do here is lay the groundwork for a future PD talk on how these findings can improve our educational settings and teaching.
Jacinta: So you’re saying our environment can be manipulated, perhaps, to bring out better results in students?
Canto: Yes, think about it. Will sitting in a soft chair help you to think more creatively or efficiently than sitting in a hard chair? Will standing or walking around improve your thinking? Don’t forget Harry Stottle and the Peripatetics. And can these effects be measured? What about the temperature of the room? The view from the window? Inside or outside?
Jacinta: Okay, so can you give me some solid research data on anything that can improve, say, test scores?
Canto: For a start, don’t ask females to indicate that they’re female on the test booklet when they’re sitting a mathematics test. Their results will be impaired. The very act of writing that they’re female apparently brings to mind the idea that girls can’t do maths. The same has been found with African-Americans and maths. This phenomenon is well known in the literature, and has been called stereotype threat.
Jacinta: Okay, but is this really an example of what you were talking about? I thought it was all about the effect of colour, temperature, lighting etc?
Canto: I’m talking about embodied cognition, or physical intelligence, and yes that research is an example – by getting someone to write their gender before sitting a test, it makes them more aware of their gender; their embodiment is brought to mind. But I’m going to give some quite striking examples of the influence of the colour red on test results. A team of American and German researchers conducted a number of experiments, the first involving 71 American undergrads. Each subject was tested individually. They were told they’d be given an anagram test, in which they had to unscramble sets of letters into words. These were of medium difficulty. After a practice run, the students were randomly divided into three groups. All students were given the same anagram tests on paper, with one difference – each participant was given a number, but with one group, the number was coloured red, with another the colour was green, with the third the colour was black. The number on the top of the paper was called to the subjects’ attention at the beginning of the test, with the excuse that this was necessary for processing. The difference in the test results was striking – those who saw a red number at the top of each page performed significantly worse than the green and black groups.
Jacinta: They saw red, and fell apart? But why would they do that? Has this study been replicated? Maybe the group with the red numbers were just bad at anagrams?
Canto: Good questions, and of course it’s the sort of study that could easily be replicated, but the results are in line with similar studies. Unfortunately I could only read a brief abstract of the original study as the detail is behind a paywall, but all these studies have been written about by Thalma Lobel in her book Sensation: the new science of physical intelligence, and, according to her, this particular study took into consideration the abilities of the groups and made sure that this wasn’t the cause of the difference. Also, the same researchers did a follow-up test in Germany, with altered experimental conditions. Instead of using anagrams they used analogy tests, such as:
legs relate to walk like:
1 tongue to mouth
2. eyes to blink
3. comb to hair
4. nose to face
Jacinta: Right, so the correct answer is 2, though it’s not the best analogy.
Canto: Well, eyes to see might be too easy. Anyway, 46 subjects were given 5 minutes to come up with 20 correct analogies. The analogies were presented on paper, each with a cover page. The subjects were divided into 3 groups and the only difference between the groups was the colour of the cover page. The first group had red, the second green, the third, white. This time their exposure to the colours was shorter – only seconds before they were asked to turn the page, and they weren’t exposed to the colour during the test itself, after they’d turned the page. Still the results were much the same as in the first experiment – exposure to the red cover page resulted in poorer scores.
Jacinta: Sooo, red’s a colour to be avoided when doing tests. What about the other colours? Were any of them good for improving test scores?
Canto: No, not in these experiments. And again, Lobel assures us that the study controlled for the variable of differential ability. The researchers conducted other studies on a range of participants – using verbal and non-verbal (e.g. mathematical) tests, and the results were consistent – exposing subjects to the colour red, and making them conscious of that colour, resulted in poorer scores.
Jacinta: And they have no explanation as to why? Presumably it’s some sort of connotative value for red. Red is danger, red is embarrassment…
Canto: Nature red in tooth and claw – but red is also the heart, the rose, the Valentine. Red has all sorts of contradictory connotations.
Jacinta: So isn’t it the way that red is seen in our culture? What about controlling for cultural connotations, however contradictory?
Canto: You mean trying it out in Outer Mongolia, or a remote African village? It’s a good point, but you know red is the colour of blood..
Jacinta: And of my life-producing vagina.
Canto: Yeah but look at the wariness with which women are treated for having one of those. Anyway I’m not sure they’ve done the study in those places, but they’ve varied the settings – labs, classrooms, outdoors – and the age-groups and the test-types, and the results haven’t varied significantly. And they did other tests to measure motivation rather than performance.
Jacinta: So you mean how seeing red influenced people’s motivation? Presumably negatively.
Canto: Yes. The same research team tried out an experiment on 67 students, based on the assumption that, if you’re an anxious or under-confident employee, you’ll knock on the boss’s door more quietly, and with fewer knocks, than if you’re a confident employee. That’s assuming you find the door closed, and you don’t actually know why you’ve been asked to see the boss. Reasonable assumptions?
Canto: So here’s the set-up. The 67 students were told they would be taking one of two tests: analogies or vocal. The students were shown a sample question from each of the tests, to convince them of the process, though it was all subterfuge basically. They were given white binders, and asked to read the name of the test on the first page. They found the word analogies printed in black ink on a coloured rectangle. The colour was either red or green. Next they were asked to walk down the corridor to a lab to take the test. The lab door was closed, but it had a sign saying ‘please knock’. It was found that those who saw the test title on a red background consistently knocked less often and less insistently.
Jacinta: So they were de-motivated and made more anxious simply by this sight of red. Again, why?
Canto: Learned associations, presumably. Red with danger, with anger, with disapproval.
Jacinta: But – just seeing it on a binder?
Canto: That’s what the evidence says.
Jacinta: Okay – I’m not sure I’m entirely convinced, but all this is a bit negative. Granted we could avoid exposing students to red just in case it inhibits learning, but what about studies that show what might be done to improve learning? That’s what we should be aiming for, surely?
Canto: Okay, so now we’ve eliminated the negative, I promise to accentuate the positive in the next post.
Jacinta: Good, we really need to latch onto the affirmative, without messing with Ms In-between…