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Men, not just ladies, in red may gain allure

Aug. 2, 2010
Courtesy of the University of Rochester
and World Science staff

What could be as al­lur­ing as a la­dy in red? A gen­tle­man in red, new re­search has found.

Simply we­ar­ing or be­ing bor­dered by the rosy hue makes a man more sex­u­ally de­sir­a­ble to wom­en, ac­cord­ing to a se­ries of stud­ies pub­lished Aug. 2 in the Jour­nal of Ex­pe­ri­men­tal Psy­chol­o­gy: Gen­er­al.

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. (Cred­it: U. of Roch­es­ter)


Past research has found that red makes wom­en more ap­peal­ing to men. The new work would thus sug­gest the effect goes both ways.

Red seems to be­ne­fit men by maki­ng them seem more pow­er­ful, said lead au­thor An­drew El­li­ot, a psy­chol­o­gist at the Uni­vers­ity of Roch­es­ter in New York. 

Without realizing it, “women view men in red as high­er in sta­tus, more likely to make mon­ey and more likely to climb the so­cial lad­der,” El­li­ot said. “It's this high-sta­tus judg­ment that leads to the at­trac­tion.”

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. 

An­cient Chi­na, Ja­pan and sub-Saharan Af­ri­ca all used the vi­brant tint to con­vey pros­per­ity and sta­tus. An­cient Rome's elite were lit­er­ally called “the ones who wear red.” Even to­day, the au­thors note, busi­ness­men wear a red tie to de­note con­fi­dence, while celebr­i­ties and dig­ni­tar­ies are fet­ed by “rolling out the red car­pet.”

Along with this learn­ed as­socia­t­ion be­tween red and sta­tus, the au­thors point to 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.

“When wom­en see red it trig­gers some­thing deep and probably bi­o­log­ic­ally en­grained,” said 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.”

The sci­en­tists an­a­lyzed re­sponses from 288 female and 25 male col­lege stu­dents to pho­tographs of men in sev­en dif­fer­ent ex­pe­ri­ments. Par­ti­ci­pants were all self-identified as heterosex­u­al or bisex­u­al. In one 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 equat­ed in light­ness and in­tens­ity so that re­sults could­n’t be at­trib­ut­ed to dif­fer­ences oth­er than hue.

In sev­er­al ex­pe­ri­ments, the ma­n’s shirt was dig­it­ally col­ored 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, and ex­tra­ver­sion.

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.

The ef­fect was lim­it­ed to wom­en, ac­cord­ing to the re­searchers: when males were asked to rate the at­trac­tiveness of a pic­tured ma­le, col­or made no dif­fer­ence in their re­sponses.

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 have al­so shown that see­ing red in com­pet­i­tive situa­t­ions, such as IQ tests or sport­ing events, leads to worse performa­nce.


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What could be as alluring as a lady in red? A gentleman in red, new research has found. Simply wearing or being bordered by the rosy hue makes a man more sexually desirable to women, according to a series of studies published Aug. 2 in the Journal of Experimental Psychology: General. The cherry color's charm ultimately lies in its ability to make men appear more powerful, says lead author Andrew Elliot, a psychologist at the University of Rochester in New York. "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 said. 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. Ancient China, Japan and sub-Saharan Africa all used the vibrant tint to convey prosperity and status. Ancient Rome's elite were literally called "the ones who wear red." Even today, the authors note, businessmen wear a red tie to denote confidence, while celebrities and dignitaries are feted by "rolling out the red carpet." Along with this learned association between red and status, the authors point to 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. "When women see red it triggers something deep and probably biologically engrained," said 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." The scientists analyzed responses from 288 female and 25 male college students to photographs of men in seven different experiments. Participants were all self-identified as heterosexual or bisexual. In one 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 equated in lightness and intensity so that results couldn’t be attributed to differences other than hue. In several experiments, the man’s shirt was digitally colored 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, and extraversion. 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. The effect was limited to women, according to the resaerchers: when males were asked to rate the attractiveness of a pictured male, color made no difference in their responses. 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 have also shown that seeing red in competitive situations, such as IQ tests or sporting events, leads to worse performance.