Thursday, 10 September 2009

Lady in Red...

Red is the colour most associated, at least in Western cultures*, with power and dominance. Tiger Woods famously wears a red shirt for the last day of a major. Liverpool, Man Utd and Arsenal, the three teams who have dominated the Premier League/First Division in the post war period, all wear red. Most importantly England won the 1966 World Cup wearing red. But surely this is all just a complete coincidence?

Apparently not, according to the latest research. It seems that what colour someone is wearing can measurably influence what happens to them.

Under controlled conditions umpires scored close Taekwondo bouts in favour of the red competitor more often than the blue. Football teams wearing red won more often than would be expected. Women were hotter when they were wearing red.

Just stop and think for a moment how unbelievable that is. It's almost certain that olympic medals and league titles have been won and lost on the basis of a kit colour. Can you imagine a referee ever owning up to giving Man Utd (red) a penalty against Everton (blue) because he thinks red is a dominant colour?

So what's the lesson from this? This kind of research reinforces my understanding that so little of our actual motivations are consciously accessible. It means if we truly want to understand people we have to dig deeper than just what they tell us.

That, and always wear red to a date if you want to get treated right.

*[it'd be interesting to know if these finding are culturally robust]


  1. Red reminds me of communism - how sad, still can't get over the past. On a serious note, we know that seeing a colour directly impacts on the hypothalamus gland, which may then affect body temperature, blood pressure, respiration etc. And some would agree and say that colour affects mood. I'm very ignorant on this and wonder what is the mechanism here, e.g. if mood affects blood pressure or the other way round and how it triggers down to our cognitive functionality? If colour influences our physiology, then will the effect not be fairly universal across the whole species? Any ideas?

  2. I don't think that the psychologists go as far as to try and specify a biological mechanism.

    It's not necessarily true to say that something that influences physiology will always be universal. When England beat other teams sat football (5-1) it has the effect of making me happy (with the corresponding real changes to my physiology) but that doesn't mean that England winning is a universal trigger (particularly if you're croatian - suckers).

    I think the only way to tell if it's cultural is to see if Chinese umpires favour the red player as well. That might tell us more about how deep the preference is.

  3. Perceiving different colours was one of the basic evolutionary steps on the development of the human brain, it was used to become much more aware of the world around. In that note the primitive man undoubtedly associated certain colours with certain feelings.
    Blue giving a soothing sensation such as the one you feel on a clear sky day, or the colour of the ocean, yellow and orange associated with fire and destructive energy, red most likely associated with hunting animals and foraging.

    Undoubtedly this was passed on with the evolution of man and we surely retain some of this knowledge or "instinct".

    Of course we are not only the result of our ancestors but also a combination of our surrounding environments so i wouldn't be surprised that, even if we have that basic colour association, that through experimentation we could learn to associate new feelings with colours, wouldn't you think so?

    An experiment to test this i would figure you could use a baby child and display these different colours and see what parts of the brain are activated using fMRI, then test the same on elder people of different people nad see what comes out.

  4. I think you're right that we do learn colour associations, but I don't think that sort of learnt information is likely to be passed down genetically.

    I think what's more likely is that it will be along the lines of a standard evolutionary mechanism. For example; humans who were attracted to red were better at finding ripe fruit and therefore healthier (and therefore had more descendants).

  5. Yes, Exactly (i always get the causality wrong on Darwinian Evolution).

    But we all know, if you think about it for a little bit, that we are being manipulated by our senses that is why Designers, Marketers and Behavioral Engineers have jobs.

    An Utopian thought comes to mind that if these people are using these ideas to sell products or services, why are they not using this knowledge to improve lifestyle? The answer is simple, they already are but much more attention is focused on generating income rather than improve the world we live in.

    Our best bet as individuals is to know and understand better how and why we are affected and be aware when it is happening. This will enable you to make even more informed decisions, and better yet, improve your own way of life.

    Now as to wearing red to a date, i don't believe it works on men, as it seems that women are in general more attracted to cooler colours. How about that?

  6. Red works on a date because it's the colour of arousal and engorgement with (red) blood, not because of red fruit. Still some way to go on causality? ;-)

  7. If I was a guy, I'd probably donate all my red clothing, including socks, to charity.

  8. What red clothing? ;-)

  9. Ed, the theory goes that red was 'chosen' as the colour of arousal because of a pre-existing bias i.e. Taking advantage of the same effect.

    Aida, I think the effect worked for both sexes. At least I hope it did, otherwise my Santa suit was a waste of money...

  10. And I assume the colour of blood was chosen the same way?

  11. To echo Aida's point, undoubtedly the colour of arousal works universally on both male and female, environment has somewhat conditioned females to be psychologically unaroused by men wearing certain red garments.(for male as well) And of course this personal taste varies enormously i.e. some girls may be put off by a Santa suit, some may find it super hot and irresistible. So the key to success on a date is to find out what your date's preferences are, perhaps why a seemingly pointless and trivial act of including one's favourite colour on a dating website profile may turn out to be quite useful (in a subtle way). I'll definitely include that on my profile from now on! ;P

  12. Ed, the red in blood is due to its chemical properties, so it could be just a complete coincidence in relation to the way in which our brain has evolved to see colour. I would doubt that though. Blood, red also provokes other feelings like fear, excitement etc. And I would not be at all that surprised to see that these other emotions give rise to arousal or the other way round. We just don't know the causality and intertwinement of these emotions wrt to each other. But I guess this may explain why some people are into hardcore S&M or more universally applicable - we all think vampires are super sexy and want to be bitten by one! Hahaha

  13. I'm going to have to start putting footnotes to explain the satire.

  14. Please do, I suffer from some severe form of autism. ;P