Do Uniform Colors Matter in Sports?
The color of a sports team's uniform can have big consequences.
Posted October 20, 2016
We usually use the posts on this blog to share with readers the findings of new research that we find particularly interesting. In this post, we want to do something a bit different.
A few days ago, I (GH) needed to locate an article from the late 1980s. As I looked through the table of contents from the relevant issue of the journal (the Journal of Personality and Social Psychology), I came across a great article that I had not read in well over 20 years. Instead of reading the article I needed, I decided to re-read one of my favorite papers. I want to share the article with you.
The paper was written Mark Frank and Thomas Gilovich and addresses how the uniform color of a sports team can influence their behavior. The authors based their research on the notion that cross-culturally, dark colors are more likely to be associated with negativity compared to light colors. As applied to the domain of sports uniforms, Frank and Gilovich wondered whether teams with black uniforms are likely to be more aggressive than teams with non-black uniforms. To test this idea, the researchers used a series of research paradigms. They started by showing participants pictures of the uniforms of all National Football League (NFL) and National Hockey League (NHL) teams. The participants, who were not sports fans (to avoid any effects about knowledge of any teams), rated each uniform on dimensions such as good/bad, timid/aggressive, and nice/mean (as an index of malevolence). The researchers found that teams with black uniforms (e.g., the Steelers and Raiders in the NFL, the Bruins and Flyers in the NHL) were perceived as more malevolent than teams with non-black uniforms.
While these data imply that people have different perceptions of aggressiveness as a function of uniform color, are there actual differences in behavior? Does wearing black uniforms make us more aggressive?
The researchers began to examine this question by using archival statistics from the NFL and NHL. Using data from 1970 to the mid-1980s, the researchers compared penalty records (using penalty yards for the NFL and penalty minutes in the NHL) for teams with black versus non-black uniforms. For both sports, the results revealed that teams with black uniforms were penalized more than teams with non-black uniforms. Additional support for this hypothesis was found in data from the 1979-1980 Pittsburgh Penguins hockey team, which changed its uniform colors from light blue to black in the middle of a season. Using predominantly the same players, the team averaged around eight penalty minutes per game in the non-black uniform, while averaging around 12 penalty minutes per game in the black uniforms.
These archival data were supplemented by a pair of experimental studies designed to test whether wearing blacks uniforms leads to harsher penalties because of biased perceptions of the players (e.g., by referees, spectators) and/or whether wearing black uniforms makes people actually behave more aggressively. The first question was tested by examining whether university participants asked to serve as referees would be biased in calling penalties against teams with black uniforms. The results revealed that, when seeing the same play, referees were more likely to call a penalty against a team when it wore black uniforms compared to white uniforms. The second question was tested by assessing whether a group would behave more aggressively when wearing black uniforms. Here, the researchers found people were more likely to behave aggressively when wearing a black uniform compared to a white uniform.
Together, the studies provided interesting evidence that color influences both how we interpret other people’s behaviors and how we behave. Not surprisingly, these results generated significant interest in how colors, as well as the clothes we wear, can influence attitudes and behaviour (see Adam & Galinsky, 2012). From our perspective, these types of studies show the power of research to reveal subtle biases that come from diverse sources. They also show that, as with a lot of modern research topics, a lot of studies from decades past are still very poignant and informative today.
Adam, H., & Galinsky, A. (2012). Enclothed cognition. Journal of Experimental Social Psychology, 48, 918-925.
Frank, M., & Gilovich, T. (1988). The dark side of self and social cognition: Black uniforms and aggression in professional sports. Journal of Personality and Social Psychology, 54, 74-85.