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Study: red enhances men’s attraction to women

Oct. 29, 2008
Courtesy University of Rochester
and World Science staff

What many play­ers of the love and dat­ing game have long sus­pected is true: red makes men more at­tracted to wom­en, a study has found.

The study by two psy­chol­o­gists was pub­lished on­line Oct. 28 by the Jour­nal of Per­son­al­ity and So­cial Psy­chol­o­gy.

Psychologist Daniel Ni­esta hold­ing one of the im­ages used in the stu­dy. (Cre­dit: U. of Roch­es­ter)


Men are gen­er­ally un­aware of the role red plays in their at­trac­tion, said the re­search­ers, An­drew El­li­ot and Dan­iel Ni­esta of the Uni­ver­s­ity of Roch­es­ter, N.Y.

From the red ochre used in an­cient rit­u­als to to­day’s red-light dis­tricts and red hearts on Valen­tine’s Day, red has been tied to car­nal pas­sions and ro­man­tic love across cul­tures and mil­len­nia. 

But this stu­dy, said El­li­ot, is the only work to sci­en­tif­ic­ally doc­u­ment the ef­fects of col­or on be­hav­ior in the con­text of rela­t­ion­ships.

“It’s only re­cently that psy­chol­o­gists and re­search­ers in oth­er dis­ci­plines have been look­ing closely and sys­tem­at­ic­ally at the rela­t­ion­ship be­tween col­or and be­hav­ior. Much is known about col­or phys­ics and col­or phys­i­ol­o­gy, but very lit­tle about col­or psy­chol­o­gy,” said El­li­ot. “It’s fas­ci­nat­ing to find that some­thing as ubiq­ui­tous as col­or can be hav­ing an ef­fect on our be­hav­ior with­out our awareness.”

Al­though this aphro­disi­a­cal ef­fect of red may be a prod­uct of so­ci­e­tal con­di­tion­ing alone, the au­thors ar­gue that men’s re­sponse to red more likely stems from deeper bi­o­log­i­cal roots. Re­search has shown that non­hu­man male pri­ma­tes are par­tic­u­larly at­tracted to females dis­play­ing red. Female ba­boons and chim­panzees, for ex­am­ple, red­den con­spic­u­ously when near­ing ovula­t­ion, send­ing a clear sex­u­al sig­nal de­signed to at­tract ma­les.

“Our re­search demon­strates a par­al­lel in the way that hu­man and non­hu­man male pri­ma­tes re­spond to red,” con­clud­ed the au­thors. “In do­ing so, our find­ings con­firm what many wom­en have long sus­pected and claimed – that men act like an­i­mals in the sex­u­al realm. As much as men might like to think that they re­spond to wom­en in a thought­ful, soph­is­t­icated man­ner, it ap­pears that at least to some de­gree, their pref­er­ences and predilec­tions are, in a word, prim­i­tive.”

The study looked at men’s re­sponses to pho­tographs of wom­en un­der a va­ri­e­ty of col­or pre­s­enta­t­ions. In one ex­pe­ri­ment, test sub­jects looked at a wom­an’s pho­to framed by a bor­der of ei­ther red or white and an­swered a se­ries of ques­tions, such as: “How pret­ty do you think this per­son is?” Oth­er ex­pe­ri­ments con­trasted red with gray, green, or blue.

When us­ing chro­mat­ic col­ors like green and blue, the col­ors were pre­cisely equat­ed in satura­t­ion and bright­ness lev­els, said Ni­esta. “That way the test re­sults could not be at­trib­ut­ed to dif­fer­ences oth­er than hue.”

In the fi­nal stu­dy, the shirt of the wom­an in the pho­tograph, in­stead of the back­ground, was dig­it­ally col­ored red or blue. In this ex­pe­ri­ment, men were queried not only about their at­trac­tion to the wom­an, but their in­ten­tions re­gard­ing dat­ing. One ques­tion asked: “Imag­ine that you are go­ing on a date with this per­son and have $100 in your wal­let. How much mon­ey would you be will­ing to spend on your date?”

Un­der all of the con­di­tions, the wom­en shown framed by or wear­ing red were rat­ed sig­nif­i­cantly more at­tractive and sex­u­ally de­sir­a­ble by men than the ex­act same wom­en shown with oth­er col­ors, the in­ves­ti­ga­tors said. When wear­ing red, the wom­an was al­so more likely to score an in­vita­t­ion to the prom and to be treated to a more ex­pen­sive out­ing.

The red ef­fect ex­tends only to males and only to per­cep­tions of at­tractiveness. Red did not in­crease at­tractiveness rat­ings for females rat­ing oth­er females and red did not change how men rat­ed the wom­en in the pho­tographs in terms of like­a­bil­ity, in­tel­li­gence or kind­ness.

Al­though red en­hances pos­i­tive feel­ings in this stu­dy, ear­li­er re­search sug­gests the mean­ing of a col­or de­pends on its con­text. For ex­am­ple, El­li­ot and oth­ers have shown that see­ing red in com­pe­ti­tion situa­t­ions, such as writ­ten ex­amina­t­ions or sport­ing events, leads to worse per­for­mance.

The cur­rent find­ings have clear im­plica­t­ions for the dat­ing game, the fash­ion in­dus­try, prod­uct de­sign and mar­ket­ing, the re­search­ers said.


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What many players of the love and dating game have long suspected is true: red makes men more attracted to women, a study has found. The study by two psychologists was published online Oct. 28 by the Journal of Personality and Social Psychology. Men are generally unaware of the role red plays in their attraction, said the researchers, Andrew Elliot and Daniel Niesta of the University of Rochester, N.Y. From the red ochre used in ancient rituals to today’s red-light districts and red hearts on Valentine’s Day, red has been tied to carnal passions and romantic love across cultures and millennia. But this study, said Elliot, is the only work to scientifically document the effects of color on behavior in the context of relationships. “It’s only recently that psychologists and researchers in other disciplines have been looking closely and systematically at the relationship between color and behavior. Much is known about color physics and color physiology, but very little about color psychology,” said Elliot. “It’s fascinating to find that something as ubiquitous as color can be having an effect on our behavior without our awareness.” Although this aphrodisiacal effect of red may be a product of societal conditioning alone, the authors argue that men’s response to red more likely stems from deeper biological roots. Research has shown that nonhuman male primates are particularly attracted to females displaying red. Female baboons and chimpanzees, for example, redden conspicuously when nearing ovulation, sending a clear sexual signal designed to attract males. “Our research demonstrates a parallel in the way that human and nonhuman male primates respond to red,” concluded the authors. “In doing so, our findings confirm what many women have long suspected and claimed – that men act like animals in the sexual realm. As much as men might like to think that they respond to women in a thoughtful, sophisticated manner, it appears that at least to some degree, their preferences and predilections are, in a word, primitive.” To quantify the red effect, the study looked at men’s responses to photographs of women under a variety of color presentations. In one experiment, test subjects looked at a woman’s photo framed by a border of either red or white and answered a series of questions, such as: “How pretty do you think this person is?” Other experiments contrasted red with gray, green, or blue. When using chromatic colors like green and blue, the colors were precisely equated in saturation and brightness levels, explained Niesta. “That way the test results could not be attributed to differences other than hue.” In the final study, the shirt of the woman in the photograph, instead of the background, was digitally colored red or blue. In this experiment, men were queried not only about their attraction to the woman, but their intentions regarding dating. One question asked: “Imagine that you are going on a date with this person and have $100 in your wallet. How much money would you be willing to spend on your date?” Under all of the conditions, the women shown framed by or wearing red were rated significantly more attractive and sexually desirable by men than the exact same women shown with other colors, the investigators said. When wearing red, the woman was also more likely to score an invitation to the prom and to be treated to a more expensive outing. The red effect extends only to males and only to perceptions of attractiveness. Red did not increase attractiveness ratings for females rating other females and red did not change how men rated the women in the photographs in terms of likability, intelligence or kindness. Although red enhances positive feelings in this study, earlier research suggests the meaning of a color depends on its context. For example, Elliot and others have shown that seeing red in competition situations, such as written examinations or sporting events, leads to worse performance. The current findings have clear implications for the dating game, the fashion industry, product design and marketing, the researchers said.