The study, published in the Journal of Experimental Psychology: General, determined that red makes men appear more powerful.
According to lead author Andrew Elliot, a 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."
(Power Tie: Credit: Kevin Rosseel)
Red appears to signal rank in virtually all cultures. The researchers point out that China, Japan and sub-Saharan Africa populations have all tied red to prosperity and elevated status. In ancient Rome, the most powerful citizens were called "the ones who wear red." Today, we roll out the red carpet for special guests.
The meanings tied to red have biological roots, the scientists believe. In non-human primates, such as mandrills and gelada baboons, for example, red indicates male dominance. The color is expressed intensely in alpha males, who get the most mating action.
"When women see red it triggers something deep and probably biologically ingrained," 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."
For the study, he and his team analyzed how 288 female and 25 male undergraduates responded to various images testing how the test subjects perceived colors, and others who wore them. All of the participants self-identified as heterosexual or bisexual.
In several experiments, the shirt of a man featured 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, and extroversion.
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. When males were asked to rate the attractiveness of a pictured male, color made no difference in their responses. (Wonder if red would make a difference to homosexual men? The prediction, I'm guessing, is that it would.)
"We typically think of color in terms of beauty and aesthetics,"
said Elliot. "But color carries meaning as well and affects our perception and behavior in important ways without our awareness."
In a prior study, 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.