Tuesday, August 24, 2010

Seeing Red Or, The Error of My Ways

If J. Alfred Prufrock measured out his life in coffee spoons, I think it can safely be said that I am in danger of measuring out my life in red-ink pens.  Although I now do a lot of my writing directly on the computer, I still like to print things up when I'm finished and hack away at them by hand when I'm revising.   When I do, I typically use a red pen--mostly, I think, because I'm blinder than a bat, and red ink is easier to see.

A recent study in The European Journal of Social Psychology suggests that this practice is fraught with danger.  In "The pen is mightier than the word: Object priming of evaluative standards" (2010), Abraham M. Rutchick, Michael L. Slepian, and Bennett D. Ferris argue that "the very act of picking up a red pen can bias [teachers'] evaluations" of student work (704).  Since I grade papers electronically in Word and since I know that, all too often, my students simply scroll through the paper to see the grade I give them at the end, I'm not too too worried about permanently traumatizing anyone.

I find the concept of "object priming" that this article describes quite fascinating, though. According to Rutchick, Slepian, and Ferris, studies suggest that "any object that is closely associated with a concept could potentially influence behavior by making that concept more accessible" (705).  Thus, they note that the very presence of guns inspires aggression and (my favorite) that "merely seeing a sports drink leads participants to perform with greater endurance" (704).

This is a somewhat sad comment on human nature, I think.  I remember reading Peter Brooks' Troubling Confessions: Speaking Guilt in Law and Literature  (2001) several years ago and being distinctly troubled by the fact that it is not really all that difficult to get people to confess to things that they didn't do--even if the things they are confessing to are particularly horrifying.  Put perhaps a bit too simply, it has been found that, if you give an already-slightly-stressed person a few cans of soda over a 5-6 hr. period and deprive them of ready access to a bathroom, there's a good chance they'll confess to carving their spouse, parent or sibling up with a butcher knife, even though they didn't actually do it at all.

Dostoevsky already knew all of this, of course.  In Crime and Punishment (1864), the protagonist Raskolnikov is startled to learn that a house-painter who was present at the scene of his own gruesome crime has voluntarily come forward and confessed to beating the pawnbroker and her pregnant sister to death with an ax.  According to the investigating officer, this kind of behavior is to be expected because there are always those among us who wish to be found guilty of something.

At the same time, though, I think Dostoevsky would be troubled by the idea that objects can commandeer human behavior simply through a process of concept-association.  We should be able to (or at least try to) transcend their influence through conscious thought and belief, I think.  Knowing that guns are instruments of violence doesn't mean that I'll grab one and start shooting, just because it happens to be handed to me.  (At the same time, I can't help but think of the scene in "American Beauty" when Annette Bening's character goes to the firing range...).

So where does this leave me with my red pen?  Over the years, people have asked, "Don't you get discouraged, seeing all those red marks?  Aren't you beating yourself up too much by pointing out all of your own mistakes like that?"  At this point, though, that isn't what the red marks mean me.  When I see all of the Bic-blood I've spilled on my own creations, I consider myself to be in the process of working through an idea--it isn't "wrong," it's simply unfinished.  Just because the world tells me what red ink usually "means," doesn't mean that it has to mean that to me.


  1. re: the red pen. In all my teacher training, various instructors have told me not to correct in red, citing certain studies that concluded there is something very discouraging about red (they even said that if you wear red clothes on the day of an exam, the students tend to score lower- something to remember when you have a difficult group). I have no idea how true this, but I never grade in red... though I do, like you, revise my own work in red. Double standard?

  2. I work with pink myself, at the risk of seeming too girly. It's just as visible, but less glaring.
    Also, I always read and contemplated all your comments on my papers, so don't despair on that account.
    Finally, although this is my first comment, I visit your blog often for a little intellectual stimulation, and I very much enjoy it.

  3. Thank you, Alyson--and pink, when used thoughtfully and judiciously, is never too girly.

    And yes, Victoria, I was told the same thing... but I do it anyway. Sometimes I use blue, though.


Ralph Waldo Emerson once wrote, "Life is short, but there is always time for courtesy."