Natural Element: Seeing Red

Getting to know the most alarming shade in the rainbow.

By Rachel Mahan, published September 1, 2008 - last reviewed on June 9, 2016

Everyone has a favorite color, but no color affects us as strongly as red. Here's how to make the hue work for you.

Play Better

Putting on a red jersey could give you a competitive edge at the gym or in a pickup basketball game. According to a study from Durham University in England, Olympians wearing red uniforms perform better than those wearing blue uniforms in combat sports. Be careful, though: You may be adversely affected by the guy next to you on the treadmill if he has a red shirt. Wearing red may not make you play better as much as seeing red may make your opponent play worse, says lead study author and anthropologist Russell Hill.

Work Better

The X's your grade school teacher scrawled in red pen might have left indelible marks on your brain. German and American study participants who viewed a flash of red had more difficulty solving anagrams and completing analogies compared with those who saw green or neutral colors like black. We probably associate red with mistakes or danger, says lead study author Andrew Elliot, a psychologist at the University of Rochester. (Consider blood and fire engines.) Similarly, subjects working on difficult tasks in a red room performed worse than those in a blue room, according to a study by Nancy Stone, a psychologist at Missouri University of Science and Technology. Think twice about that scarlet lamp shade on your desk.

Stand Out

Wearing red can get you noticed, and not just because it's a vivid color. When you see bright red, it may actually speed up your heart rate, says Barbara Drescher, a researcher at the University of California, Santa Barbara. Bright green can do the same, even though green is seen as the most pleasant hue while red is rated least pleasant. People may pay attention to you with these colors, but Drescher isn't sure how long the arousal lasts. "We adapt very, very quickly," she says.