By Jennifer Copley (Last Updated 2 February 2012)
The colour red evokes a number of descriptors: exciting, stimulating, aggressive, passionate, dynamic, dominant, and perhaps a little dangerous. Recent research has added “attractive” to this list, and the red effect appears to work its magic on both genders.
Elliot et al. (2010), via a series of seven experiments, found that men wearing red clothing or standing in front of red backgrounds were more attractive to women. Starting with a photo of a man, the researchers digitally manipulated either the shirt or the background to change the colour. This clever experimental design ensured that all subjects viewed the same man (and the same shirt) so that they reacted only to the colour. In some of the experiments, the researchers asked women to rate not only the attractiveness of the man in the photo, but also his perceived status and the level to which they desired sexual activity with him. On all three measures, the red shirt beat the shirts of other colours.
Elliot et al. (2010) list various other studies that have linked the colour red to power, dominance, strength, importance, authority, status, and wealth across cultures (hence the expression, “rolling out the red carpet” to signify the special treatment accorded to people of great status). Therefore, it’s unsurprising that women would find red attractive on a man. The authors also note that various studies have linked red to love and passion in many different cultures, and to lust and fertility in ancient rituals and myths.
Women aren’t the only ones drawn to red. Niesta et al. (2010) found that men also respond to red on women. The researchers conducted two experiments. In the first, men chose to ask more intimate questions of a woman in a red shirt than one wearing green (a sign of attraction). During the second experiment, men chose to sit closer to a female who wore red rather than blue (they didn’t actually interact with the woman, but chose a chair in the room closer to or further from the place where they believed the woman would sit).
Given that red is associated with high status, does this mean that men are also drawn to women of status? Other studies suggest that despite the stereotype that only women find status attractive, men respond to it as well (Jayson, 10 February 2009; Tran et al. 2008; Whelan, 2010). And, of course, red is a sexual symbol, hence the descriptor “red -light district” for areas in which sexual services are available, and the sexy reputation of red dresses and lipstick.
Status and sexiness may not be the only factors responsible for the red effect. Past research has shown that intense reds can trigger an adrenaline release, which may increase energy, muscular tension, excitement, and possibly hostility in some cases (Vodvarka, 1999). Thus, people wearing red or standing in front of red backgrounds may be perceived as more exciting. Interestingly, a UK study of car colours and personality traits found that people who were outspoken and energetic were more likely to choose red cars (Colburn Group Insurance, April 2009).
It’s worth noting that the red effect did not work platonically. Elliot et al. (2010) found that heterosexual men’s impressions of other men were not affected by red. The red effect also did not impact personality judgments even when it made the targets more appealing; women who found men in red more attractive did not perceive them as more extroverted, likeable, or agreeable.
When reading about experiments such as these, it’s important to keep in mind that participants were reacting to photos rather than interacting with people. Movement, body language, voice, and other “live” factors play a significant role in attraction, and these cues are lacking in studies that use only photos. When subjects have the opportunity to speak with a live person, there will be more variables at play influencing attractiveness.
Given that most of the research subjects were young Western heterosexuals, it would be interesting to see some research with homosexual, older, and international subjects to determine whether or not the red effect is universal (there were some Asian, African-American, and Hispanic subjects in the red studies, but the majority were Caucasian).
Will wearing red bring people of the opposite sex flocking to your side? Probably not, but a nice red shirt may get you noticed and give you a bit of an edge.
- Colburn Group Insurance. (April 2009). “Car Color May Reflect Your Personality.” ColburnGroup.com.
- Elliot, A. J.; Niesta Kayser, D.; Greitemeyer, T.; Lichtenfeld, S.; Gramzow, R.H.; Maier, M.A.; & Liu, H. (2010). “Red, Rank, and Romance in Women Viewing Men.” Journal of Experimental Psychology: General, 139(3), pp. 399-417.
- Jayson, S. (10 February 2009). “What’s the Attraction? Look to Society, Biology, Not ‘Logic’.” USA Today, USAToday.com.
- Niesta Kayser, D.; Elliot, A.; & Feltman, R. (2010). “Red and Romantic Behavior in Men Viewing Women.” European Journal of Social Psychology, 40(6), pp. 901-908.
- Tran, S.; Simpson, J.A.; & Fletcher, G.J.O. (2008). “The Role of Ideal Standards in Relationship Initiation Processes.” In S. Sprecher, A. Wenzel, & J. Harvey (Eds.) Handbook of Relationship Initiation, pp. 487-498), New York: Psychological Press.
- Vodvarka, F. (1999). “Aspects of Color.” Midwest-Facilitators.net.
- Whelan, C.B., Dr. (2010). “Rank Ordering of Mate Preferences Across 7 Decades, by Participant Gender.” ChristineWhelan.com/research.