Social psychologists with an evolutionary bent are in love with the color red. Women wear red, according to this view, as a sexual signal to attract men (e.g. Elliot et al., 2012). In non-human primates, females show they’re ready to mate by displaying red on their bodies, including face, chest, or genitalia.
Acknowledging that cultural factors may play a role in the red-sexiness link, University of Rochester psychologist Adam Pazda and colleagues (Pazda et al., 2012) argued that red has been used by women throughout history as a lure to men. Although the red-sexiness link could be rooted in cultural factors, such as the use of red to signal sexual availability in “red light” districts, red on a woman may also be a cue that a woman is at her most fertile point in the sexual reproductivity cycle. In two studies on small samples of men (22 and 25, respectively), Pazda and his team found that men regarded women wearing red as more sexually desirable and attractive due, so they showed statistically, to their perception that the women in red were more sexually receptive. In another in their series of studies on restaurant behavior researchers Nicolas Guéguen and Celine Jacob showed that waitresses wearing red received higher tips from male, but not female, patrons.
Perhaps “Fifty Shades of Grey” should have been titled “Fifty Shades of Red.” Clearly, if you want to attract a man (or get a bigger tip), the message from these studies is that you should throw out all your little black dresses. Instead,buy up every scarlet, rose, fire, ruby, and crimson outfit you can find. Acting on their biologically programmed instincts men, like bulls in the ring, literally will “see red” and become unable to control their urges.
However, you might very well be wondering about other explanations for the red-come-get-me theory. Red is a color that we see attached to many other stimuli besides women’s dresses, rouge, and lipstick. To pick one obvious example, the man in red, Santa Claus, is a nearly universal image in our society. We associate him with holiday joy, giving, and good cheer. Valentine’s day, with its hefty splashes or red, also have many positive associations for us.
However, there are plenty of non-positive associations to red. Everything from blood to stop signs to the ink teachers use to grade our papers shows up in a bright red hue equal to any sexy woman's lips. As often as it means “come hither,” then, red also means danger. Look around you right now and count the number of objects you see that are red. You might like (or hate) them for a whole host of reasons, biological being the least important. In any case, with a lifetime of experiences seeing red in positive contexts (e.g. Santa), why couldn’t culture account just as much as biology in explaining the attraction of seeing a lady in red?
As the evolutionary biology craze sweeps psychology, the red-sexiness link being among them, isn’t it time for a reality check? Is men's desire for a lady in red simply programmed into their neural circuits, the results of millennia of Darwinian processes? It turns out that a number of researchers are putting this question to rigorous experimental tests. One example is a set of studies examining infant preferences for different hues (e.g. Franklin et al., 2010). Infants seem to prefer the red vs. the green end of the spectrum due, it would seem, to the way their color coding apparatus works in their nervous system. If evolution accounted for this preference, boy babies should show the red effect more than do girl babies. However, Franklin and team found no such sex difference.
Most recently, psychologist Chloe Taylor and her associates at Surrey University (2012), decided to investigate cultural differences among adults in color preferences. If preferences differ across cultures, this would challenge the claims of the biological imperative that we, especially men, feel when they see ladies in red. Taylor and her team traveled to rural northern Namibia, where they examined the predictors of color preferences in natives of Himba villages. Then they compared the responses of the villagers to undergraduates back in Surrey. The participants rated their color preferences on a 1 to 10 scale (the villagers with a set of sticks; the undergraduates with a numerical scale). Then they were asked to report on which objects they mentally associated with each color.
Interestingly, Taylor’s investigation was based on the assumption that is exactly the opposite of the evolutionary red-preference proposal. Previous research on British men and women showed that it’s the women, not the men, who prefer red. The evolutionary argument behind this finding was that in our long-ago hunter-gatherer past, women needed to be able to spot red berries against green foliage so they could feed their broods.
Rather than propose we are hard-wired to like one color or another, based on our sex and our sexual needs, Taylor and her colleagues suggest that we adapt, through the course of our lives, to prefer objects of certain colors due to cultural conditioning. We may be programmed, through evolution, to be better able to detect colors that help us to survive. However, the emotional experiences we have can shape those preferences. In fact, rather than red being the universally most salient color, experimental psychologists believe we are actually programmed to prefer, and be able to detect, blue. A preference for blue draws us to colors that are important for our survival, such as blue water and clear skies. If we do develop preferences for red, it’s because we’ve learned to associate red with pleasant experiences (the Santa Claus effect).
After comparing sex differences in color preferences between the industrialized Brits and rural Namibians, Taylor and her associates concluded that there was very little overlap indeed. The color preferences in both groups reflected emotional attachments to colors based on associations to objects and how bright the colors were. What’s more, the Himba males actually preferred colors that they had associated with objects they rated as ones they disliked.
Taylor and her fellow researchers concluded that, when all is said and done, there is no one “universal” explanation for why we like and dislike particular colors. The reasons can range from the psychophysical (our sensory systems), to learned associations to particular objects, and to biological components of color vision. Color preferences can develop over our lives in ways that reflect these multiple factors. For example, socialization is reflected in the fact that girls start to prefer the color pink at about the same time that sex stereotypes start to influence many of their other behaviors.
The moral of the story is that human color preferences can’t easily be traced to our DNA. When it comes to clothing choices, wear the color that you feel best in, not the one you think will have an impact on your love life. Be wary, too, of which color you wear for which occasion. Because of the social significance we attach to color, you might actually put yourself at a disadvantage if your clothing sends out the wrong signals and conflicts with the impression you're trying to create. Wearing red might be profitable if you’re a waitress, but when you’re trying to look professional, it may be time to get out that old standby, the little black suit.
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Copyright Susan Krauss Whitbourne, Ph.D. 2012
Elliot, A. J., Greitemeyer, T., & Pazda, A. D. (2012). Women's use of red clothing as a sexual signal in intersexual interaction. Journal Of Experimental Social Psychology, doi:10.1016/j.jesp.2012.10.001
Franklin, A., Bevis, L., Ling, Y., & Hurlbert, A. (2010). Biological components of colour preference in infancy. Developmental Science, 13(2), 346-354. doi:10.1111/j.1467-7687.2009.00884.x
Guéguen, N. & Jacob, C. (2012). Clothing Color and Tipping: Gentlemen Patrons Give More Tips to Waitresses With Red Clothes, Journal of Hospitality & Tourism Research published online 18 April 2012,
Pazda, A. D., Elliot, A. J., & Greitemeyer, T. (2012). Sexy red: Perceived sexual receptivity mediates the red-attraction relation in men viewing woman. Journal Of Experimental Social Psychology, 48(3), 787-790. doi:10.1016/j.jesp.2011.12.009
Taylor, C., Clifford, A., & Franklin, A. (2012). Color Preferences Are Not Universal. Journal Of Experimental Psychology: General, doi:10.1037/a0030273