It's well known that people stereotype others based on their skin color, but did you know that people also stereotype colors themselves? The best example of this is the long-held association that black is bad, and white is good. Just watch an old Western movie, and you can immediately tell who the good guys and bad guys are by the color of their cowboy hats. This example shows that colors contribute more than just aesthetics. Colors also carry specific cultural meaning, such as good or bad, that likely have important influences on psychological functioning.
Recently, Andrew Elliot and Daniela Niesta extended the idea of color stereotypes to the study of sexual attraction (Elliot & Niesta, 2008). Specifically, they were interested in whether certain colors were more likely to be associated with sex appeal, and if so, whether wearing them would make people more attractive to the opposite sex.
So when you think about sexiness, what color first comes to mind?
If you are like most Americans, you thought of the color red. Red means different things in different cultures — In Chinese culture, it represents good luck and prosperity, which is why people often paint their front doors red — but in American culture, red often represents sex. If you think about it, most of the images that represent passionate love are red: red roses, red lipstick, red lingerie, red heart boxes of candy on Valentine's Day, and even the "red-light district."
If red is typically associated with sex, then can wearing red make a woman sexier? If you take a look at the movies, the answer would seem to be an unequivocal yes. Remember the scene from the first Matrix movie, where Neo is distracted during a simulation by the beautiful woman in the red dress? Or how about the scene in Pretty Woman where Julia Roberts, dressed in a sexy red dress, is given a ruby and diamond necklace? Or who can forget the scene from American Beauty, where red rose petals rain down on a naked Mena Suvari. Clearly, Hollywood thinks red makes women sexy, but does empirical research support this assumption?
To test this idea, Elliot and Niesta showed men a photograph of a moderately attractive woman and asked them to rate her attractiveness. For some, the woman in the photo was wearing a red shirt. For others, the same woman was wearing a blue shirt. The results showed that men rated the woman in red as more attractive and more sexually desirable than the same woman in blue. They were also more interested in dating the woman and indicated they would be willing to spend more money on her when she was dressed in red.
So men find women who wear red more attractive, but maybe this result is because we have a stereotype about women who choose to wear red. Perhaps these men assumed that women who wear red are more promiscuous, and that is why they were more interested in dating them. To address this possibility, these researchers conducted another study. This time, the woman in the photo wore the same outfit, but stood in front of a red, white, gray, or green background. The results showed that men were significantly more attracted to the woman when she was against a red background.
Interestingly, when these men were asked if the color of her shirt or background had an influence on their attraction, none reported that it did. This indicates that color influences our judgments in an automatic and primarily unconscious manner.
These studies provided empirical evidence that the "lady in red" is a sexually appealing image for men. But what about what women like? Are women just as intrigued by a "gentlemen in red?" Unlike the image of a woman in red, there are few references in pop culture of a man dressed in red. This anecdotal evidence suggests that when men wear red, it may not bring to mind the idea of sex in the way that it does when worn by women.
But red is a versatile color. It doesn't just represent sex and lust; it also is used to represent power and prestige. History seems to support this association between red and power: In medieval Europe, red was worn by kings, cardinals, and nobility. In classic Rome, the most powerful men were called the coccinati, meaning the "ones who wear red." And in the late 12th century, the Christian church adopted the color red as a symbol of authority and assumed the emblem of a red cross against a white background.
A quick look around will tell you that this association between red and power seems to have continued into the present day: The "red carpet" is only rolled out during special events (e.g., the Oscars), and only the most prestigious individuals are allowed to walk on it. We use the term "red-letter day" to indicate a day of special significance. The "power tie" worn by modern businessmen is traditionally red in color. And the stereotypic image of a successful, powerful man is one who drives a red sports car.
To examine if red makes men seem more powerful, and therefore more desirable to women, Elliot and colleagues conducted another series of studies (Elliot, Niesta Kayser, Greitemeyer, Lichtenfeld, Gramzow, Maier & Liu, 2010). Women from four different countries, including Eastern and Western cultures, viewed photos of male targets. In some of the studies, the man in the photo wore a shirt that was red or another hue; in other studies, the man was pictured against a red or alternatively colored background.
Across seven studies, women were more likely to find the man attractive and sexually appealing when he was associated with the color red. More importantly, the results showed that the effect of red on attraction was mediated by increased perceptions of status. That is, men associated with red were rated as higher status, and it was this increase in perceived status that appealed to women.
Taken together, the results of these studies imply some practical dating advice: Next time you are getting ready for a date, consider injecting some red into your wardrobe. If a red dress or red shirt is too loud for your taste, then try adding just a touch of red. If you are a woman, consider red jewelry or red shoes. If you are a man, consider a red tie or handkerchief.
More generally, these studies also indicate that the effect of color on psychological processes largely depends on the context. The experiments show that red has different meanings, depending on which sex is wearing it. But the meaning of red can also change depending on the situation or context. For example, red is often used in signs that tell us to stop our behavior (e.g., stoplights, stop signs) or warn us of imminent danger (e.g., warning labels, threat advisory systems). So instead of symbolizing sex or power, red can sometimes signal danger.
In another study, Gerend & Sias (2009) explored how the color red influences health decisions. These researchers theorized that in a health context, the color red primes thoughts of danger, blood, and infection, and should therefore make people more health conscious. To test their idea, they had men read a pamphlet advocating the benefits of a particular vaccination. For some, the pamphlet cover was red, and for others it was gray. Their results showed that men reported a stronger interest in getting the vaccination when the pamphlet color was red. Thus, the same color can mean different things when presented in different contexts.
One would hope that important life decisions, like who to date or when to get a vaccine, are made on the basis of well-reasoned decision-making. But this emerging research suggests that our thoughts and behaviors are often "colored" in ways of which we are unaware.
Elliot, A. J., & Niesta, D. (2008). Romantic red: Red enhances men's attraction to women. Journal of Personality and Social Psychology, 95, 1150-1164.
Elliot, A. J., Niesta Kayser, D., Greitemeyer, T., Lichtenfeld, S., Gramzow, R. H., Maier, M. A., & Liu, H. (2010). Red, rank, and romance in women viewing men. Journal of Experimental Psychology: General, 139, 399-417.
Gerend, M. A., & Sias, T. (2009). Message framing and color priming: How subtle threat cues affect persuasion. Journal of Experimental Social Psychology, 45, 999-1002.