The Power of Red

“Power red.” Perhaps you've heard the phrase. Perhaps you've attempted to use the phenomenon to your advantage in an interview, meeting, or just everyday life.

The phrase, which has been commonly adopted, is predicated upon the notion that the color “red” means power, strength, and assertiveness. Thus, one should wear it when hoping to be noticed and appear confident.

In fact, politicians capitalize upon this idea of “the power of red” all the time. Politicians like President Kennedy (notably in the first televised debate in history), President George W. Bush (who wore red for every major speech in the beginning of his 2nd term), and even President Obama, have chosen to wear red ties on specific occasions to convey a carefully crafted message. 

And perhaps they've succeeded, even if subtly. Furthermore, if you've sported a red tie in hopes of deriving the same benefits, the benefits that you intended to derive may have actually been realized. Which brings about a good question: does “red” work and why?

So first things. Yes, wearing “red” has effects that extend well beyond just looking good.

In 2004, a study of Olympic athletes competing in boxing, tae kwon do, Greco-Roman wrestling and freestyle wrestling tested the hypothesis that the color red has an effect on the outcome of events.

In the study, scientists’ competitors were randomly assigned red or blue outfits or protective gear and in 16 of 21 rounds, red clad winners prevailed. One explanation could be that the red clad athletes were just better. But seeing as some of the athletes that won while wearing red then lost while wearing blue, there might be something more to it and ultimately, scientists concluded that red can be a deciding factor among evenly matched competitors. The researchers’ ultimate takeaway: the color of sportswear needs to be taken into account to ensure a level playing field in sport.

Another set of researchers however, disagreed with the conclusions drawn from the 2004 Olympic study pointing out that the first set of researchers left out a key element of these sports: the referees. Nonetheless, an examination of these referees and their actions yielded the same conclusion: wearing the color red is often advantageous among athletes. These new researchers went about proving so by showing forty-two experienced, tae kwon do refs video clips of sparring rounds of five different competitors of similar abilities.

First the referees were shown the original videos, with one opponent in red gear, and the other one in blue. Then, they were shown the same clips digitally altered so that the colors were reversed (the refs were unaware of the color switch).

What did they find? Those clad in red scored an average of 13% higher than their blue clad opponents. Furthermore, athletes who started out in blue were awarded more points when they later appeared in red, and those who started out in red received fewer points when in blue.

But perhaps an even more telling study was conducted in 2010 by researchers Andrew Elliot, Daniela Niesta Kayser and colleagues at the University of Rochester. This team of researchers conducted a series of experiments in four different countries to assess the effect of “red” on male attractiveness.

To do so, the subjects of the study viewed photos of men. In some of the studies, the man in the photo wore a shirt that was red or another color while in other studies, the man was pictured against a red or alternatively colored background. The researchers told participants that the studies explored their “first impressions of others,” and avoided mentioning color and sex. 

Half of the randomly assigned participants were shown the picture of a man on a red background for 5 seconds; the other half was shown the same man (and same image) on a white background (note that another experiment manipulated the man's shirt color and yielded the same results). 

Participants rated the attractiveness of the man in the picture. The results showed that women ranked the man as more attractive when he was presented against the red backdrop and/or wearing a red short. The researchers then ran the same experiment on men (who were asked to rate the same man against these color backgrounds) and found differences in color did not affect ratings of attractiveness. 

Additional experiments were conducted to test the color red against colors such as gray, green, and blue. The results didn't vary.

These same participants were asked, in a separate study, what the man's social status was. In this case, again, men in red (or in front of a red background) were thought to be of high social status and with higher potential for success. And results from men judging other men, unlike the attractiveness study, there was a clear link between the color red and social status and potential of success. Notably, the color red had no effect on ratings of the man’s likability. 

But how can these results be explained? 

Unfortunately, the link between the color red and success and attractiveness is still a thing of study. Nonetheless, there are plenty of researchers doing that very thing...studying it. And thus far, they've found a lot of interesting things. 

Though, the bottom line is: it is likely that the effect has both a social component and biological component. 

The social component includes what the color has symbolized and been associated with in the past. 

In primitive societies, sacred objects were painted and/or coated red to enhance their potency and convey a sense of importance. Furthermore, body decoration and jewelry were red and used only in rituals and ceremonies for high ranking officials. In primitive societies, sacred objects were painted and/or coated red to enhance their potency and convey a sense of importance. 

In Ancient China, Japan, and sub-saharan African, red was a part of the regalia of the rich and powerful. Furthermore, these societies all used red to convey prosperity and elevated status. 

In Ancient Rome, the most powerful citizens were literally called "the ones who wear red." 

Beginning in the late 12th century, the Christian church adopted red as a symbol of authority, using a red cross on a white shield for its emblem. Additionally, red was the color of nobility and rank in medieval Europe, worn only by kings, cardinals, and judges. Finally, even in today's vernacular, red holds a special place. We refer to days on importance as “red letter days” and we reserve special treatment, including “rolling out the red carpet” for celebrities and/or dignitaries. Though these associations may go unnoticed and the effects subconscious and subtle, they still appear to be powerful and may have a greater effect on us than we are led to believe.

But there is also a biological component to this phenomenon.

Among many species, the alpha male manifests the brightest red colors as a result of increased blood flow and higher levels of testosterone. They are also the most fertile of their pack. Red is thus associated with dominance, aggressiveness, power, and fertility. 

For those athletes, red attire may have boosted feelings of dominance and aggressiveness in the athlete wearing them and caused opponents to be intimidated. And for women, red suggested power and virility, both of which are attractive, at least on a biological level.

Who knew? We're hard wired and trained to respect and appreciate the power of red.


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