The Color of Sensual
and Successful Influence?
By Kevin Hogan
Red: The Universal Aphrodisiac?
To this point we know the monkey will not approach the food brought
in by the individual wearing red.
We know that monkeys are attracted to other monkeys displaying red.
We know that men are attracted to women in red.
What about women? Are they attracted to men wearing red (across
For that answer we turn to The Journal of Experimental Psychology.
Simply wearing the color red or being bordered by the rosy hue makes
a man more attractive and sexually desirable to women, according to a
series of studies by researchers at the University of Rochester and
other institutions. And women are unaware of this arousing effect.
The cherry color's charm ultimately lies in its ability to make men
appear more powerful, says lead author Andrew Elliot, professor of
psychology at the University of Rochester. "We found that women view
men in red as higher in status, more likely to make money and more
likely to climb the social ladder. And it's this high-status judgment
that leads to the attraction," Elliot says.
Red Signals Rank
Why does red signal rank? The authors see both culture and biology
at work. In human societies across the globe, red traditionally has
been part of the regalia of the rich and powerful.
Japan and sub-Saharan Africa all used the vibrant tint to convey
prosperity and elevated status, and Ancient Rome's most powerful
citizens were literally called "the ones who wear red." Even today,
the authors note, businessmen wear a red tie to indicate confidence,
and celebrities and dignitaries are feted by "rolling out the red
Along with this learned association between red and status, the
authors point to the biological roots of human behavior. In non-human
primates, like mandrills and gelada baboons, red is an indicator of
male dominance and is expressed most intensely in alpha males.
Females of these species mate more often with alpha males, who in
turn provide protection and resources.
"You're Acting Like an Animal!"
"When women see red it triggers something deep and probably
biologically engrained," explains Elliot. "We say in our culture that
men act like animals in the sexual realm. It looks like women may be
acting like animals as well in the same sort of way."
To quantify the red effect, the paper analyzed responses from 288
female and 25 male undergraduates to photographs of men in seven
different experiments. Participants were all self-identified as
heterosexual or bisexual. In one color presentation, participants
looked at a man's photo framed by a border of either red or white and
answered a series of questions, such as: "How attractive do you think
this person is?"
Other experiments contrasted red with gray, green, or blue. Colors
were precisely equated in lightness and intensity so that test
results could not be attributed to differences other than hue.
In several experiments, the shirt of the man in the photographs was
digitally colored either red or another color. Participants rated the
pictured man's status and attractiveness, and reported on their
willingness to date, kiss, and engage in other sexual activity with
the person. They also rated the man's general likability, kindness,
The researchers found that the red effect was limited to status and
romance: red made the man seem more powerful, attractive, and
sexually desirable, but did not make the man seem more likable, kind,
or sociable. The effect was consistent across cultures:
undergraduates in the United States, England, Germany, and China all
found men more attractive when wearing or bordered by red.
Men: Rose Colored Glasses?
And the effect was limited to women. When males were asked to rate
the attractiveness of a pictured male, color made no difference in
Across all the studies, the influence of color was totally under the
radar. "We typically think of color in terms of beauty and
aesthetics," say Elliot. "But color carries meaning as well and
affects our perception and behavior in important ways without our
In earlier work, Elliot documented that men are more attracted to
women in red. But the red effect depends on the context. Elliot and
others, as stated, have also shown that seeing red in competitive situations,
such as IQ tests or sporting events, leads to worse performance.
[The paper was coauthored by Daniela Niesta Kayer, University of
Rochester; Tobias Greitemeyer, University of Innsbruck; Stephanie
Lichtenfeld, University of Munich; Richard H. Gramzow, University of
Southampton; Markus A. Maier, University of Munich; and Huijun Liu,
Tainjin Medical University. The research was funded by the Alexander
von Humboldt Foundation and an Excellence Guest Professorship at
the University of Munich. Contact: Susan Hagen
susan.hagen AT rochester DOT edu]
Does color affect exam results?
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