Why is the Color Red so Powerful?: Photos

Powerful compounds in nature are often red, so just seeing this color can impact the thinking of people and other animals.

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The color red is the single most powerful color in the animal kingdom, says new research on the bold shade. Because red in nature frequently carries with it actual biological significance, people and other animals are hardwired to perceive it differently than other colors, finds a study published in the latest issue of the journal Royal Society Biology Letters. Lead author Diana Wiedemann and her team from Durham University even determined that red clothing causes us to perceive the wearers as being more aggressive, dominant and brave. President Barack Obama chose well in 2009 when wearing a red tie to his first swearing in ceremony as President of the United States. "In business, red ties are known as 'power ties,'" senior author Robert Barton told Discovery News. He added that dominant, extroverted people tend to wear red more than other people do, so the color can provide an honest signal, or information, about the wearer's personality.

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Wiedemann, who is a natural redhead, says that "men are more likely to approach a woman in a pub when she is wearing red lipstick." Women wearing red clothing are also often perceived as being more dangerous, sexy and less reserved than others. The late actress Elizabeth Taylor is really working the power of red in this old publicity still. She is rocking both red lipstick and a revealing red gown.

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Barton explained that in humans, high testosterone and changes to blood circulation can affect the appearance of an individual's skin. He and his team report that people are very perceptive about such changes, even in dark-skinned individuals where such color differences would seem to be less obvious. "A reddish or 'ruddy' complexion is associated with good health," he said. We gravitate to people with rosy cheeks and a healthy complexion. Paleness, conversely, may signal fear and/or illness. If a person's face is too red, on the other hand, that too may signal fever and illness. Because we are hard-wired to detect red on skin, we pay attention to red clothing too. The researchers found that wearing red can enhance the probability of winning sports and may intimidate rivals. While it goes without saying that a team such as the Boston Red Sox does not always win, the red in the uniforms they often wear may be more influential than most of us may think.

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Multiple surveys show that red cars attract more speeding tickets than cars of other colors. The researchers suggest a few different reasons as to why that is the case. First, just as more dominant and aggressive people tend to wear more red clothing, so too do such individuals tend to drive red cars. Secondly, the color is more likely to catch the eyes of highway patrol officers. (That is one reason why stoplights and signs are red; they grab our attention more.) Finally, since red itself can signal aggression, officers likely tend to associate it more with speed demons.

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Note how the red colors really stand out in the face of this yelling man. When a person of any skin color opens his or her mouth to yell, the redness in the individual's lips, gums and mouths become very evident. This man's skin is redder in color too, having received a rush of oxygenated blood due to elevated testosterone levels. A friendly smile, on the other hand, puts the emphasis on white teeth as opposed to redness in the mouth. This and the "angry red" signaling are particularly evident in males. Wiedemann explained, "Males in a variety of species, be it human or nonhuman, are by nature programmed to engage in competitions with other males and compete for mates, territory, food, status etc. Therefore, being sensitive to the signaling meaning of red coloration as a possible sign of dominance may be helpful for males to assess an opponent's physical abilities and then reflect on whether it is worth engaging in a fight (and hopefully win) or not (thus avoiding injuries, for example)." "In contrast," she continued, "females are biologically less competitive, and as a consequence, the association between dominance and red is less important for survival among females than it is for males."

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Prince William might be wearing an attention-grabbing red uniform, but Prince Harry still attracts eyes due to his naturally bright red hair and skin coloration. Many famous leaders, particularly in the past, were redheads. George Washington, the first president of the United States, had bright red hair before it went gray. Roman Emperor Nero and the legendary Helen of Troy were also said to be redheads. Literature tends to reinforce such perceptions that redheads have dynamic personalities. Barton said, "In 'Anne of Green Gables,' a character says of Anne Shirley, the redheaded heroine, that 'her temper matches her hair,' while in 'The Catcher in the Rye,' Holden Caulfield remarks that 'people with red hair are supposed to get mad very easily, but Allie [his dead brother] never did, and he had very red hair.'"

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In addition to grabbing a cup of coffee in the morning to jump start energy, some might consider wearing red to get their blood circulating. Just looking at the color is associated with higher heart rate, according to the researchers. That could be because the color stimulates us to pay attention, as for watching out for stoplights. As mentioned earlier, red is also an honest signal of elevated blood pressure, so the power of suggestion with the clothing perhaps has wearers of red clothing believing that their hearts are pumping faster.

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Red markings, such as the telltale red hourglass on black widow spiders, often function as a signal of toxins. The coloration serves as a warning to potential threats that they had better back off, or else. The chemicals making up red itself may or may not be toxic. For example, algal blooms can create poisonous "red tides." Tomatoes, on the other hand, are red as can be, but hold nutrition benefits. People for centuries were afraid to eat tomatoes, however, before they were deemed to be safe to eat.

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Red often earns respect in the animal kingdom. Barton, for example, explained that "in nonhuman primates like the mandrill monkey, the redness of a male's face indicates his dominance status and testosterone levels." This male is clearly a head honcho in his troop. In other species, male zebra finches with redder legs tend to scare off rival males. Some fish even respond to red too, with certain meeker individuals going to a lot of trouble to avoid individuals and objects with the bold color.

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Perhaps the most surprising discovery so far about the color red is that it distorts time for men, but not women. Yet another research team, Masahiro Shibasaki and Nobuo Masataka of Kyoto University, discovered that "men but not women overestimated the length of time they were exposed to a red stimulus compared to a blue stimulus, and their reaction times were faster." This could be because of our strong inherent reaction to the color red. In terms of how we perceive the color blue, other studies suggest that humans associate blue with calmness or sadness, depending on the shade. While red tops the color power chart, black is a close second, the researchers say. Barton explained that "melanin (the compound that provides color to skin) is partly testosterone dependent." It could also be that darker colors are associated with red, such that some of the attributes humans ascribe to red could apply to black as well.

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