"Power Ties" Are Actually Powerless

Does Trump’s red “power tie” really make him appear more dominant?

Posted Sep 23, 2016

Gage Skidmore/Flickr
Source: Gage Skidmore/Flickr

Donald Trump is hardly a sartorial icon, but the Republican presidential nominee is known for one eye-catching style choice: his “power ties”.

Trump’s ties have clearly caught the attention of the Democratic nominee. When Hillary Clinton appeared on Zach Galifianakis’s internet chat show “Between Two Ferns” yesterday, she was asked what Trump was likely to wear to the first presidential debate. Clinton replied:

“I assume he’ll wear that red power tie”.

Trump, who sometimes sports a blue or gold tie, often wears one of his many red ties at high-profile events such as rallies and debates.

And The Donald isn’t the only politician who favors red ties. During the GOP debates, almost all of the Republican candidates for president teamed their navy suits, white shirts, and Stars and Stripes lapel pins with a red tie.

Why the Red Tie?

So why do so many politicians wear red power ties?

Unless we ask them (or their stylists) it’s impossible to know for sure. Some journalists have speculated that red is a popular color because it features in the American flag and so advertises its wearer’s patriotism. If this is true, though, we should see as many blue ties as red.

Perhaps the clue is in the name: “power”. Could it be that politicians suspect that a red tie makes them appear more powerful, dominant, and authoritative?

The Power of Red

In nature, red signals dominance. Stickleback with red bellies are more aggressive. Higher ranking mandrills have more vibrant red faces. The color red is associated with dominance and rank in the animal kingdom because of testosterone. Only animals with a lot of male hormone to spare can afford the costly pigments necessary to cover their bodies with red.

Jeff Keacher/Flickr
Source: Jeff Keacher/Flickr

This red=dominance effect has also been found in humans. In taekwondo matches, combatants are randomly assigned red or blue body armor and head guards. Even though the process is random, the fighter in red more often than not wins the bout. Red armor appears to give a fighter a competitive edge.

The same pattern has been shown in soccer and Australian rugby. If you compete in red, you’re more likely to win.

American politics may seem at times to be a full-contact sport. But is there any reason to expect that the competitive advantage of red translates from the sporting to the political arena?

It’s certainly true that red — devoid of context — is judged to be a more dominant and aggressive color than blue.

Also, when a man’s clothes are Photoshopped to change their color, and the photographs are rated for dominance and aggression, red clothes result in significantly higher ratings than blue or grey clothes. Conclusion: red clothes make a man appear more powerful.

A Dead Tie

Surely this means that Trump is onto a winner? New research suggests otherwise.

Robin Kramer, a psychologist from the University of York in the UK, decided to test the effects of red on perceptions of dominance and leadership ability in the very specific context of tie colors worn by politicians.

Robin Kramer/CC BY-SA 2.0
Source: Robin Kramer/CC BY-SA 2.0

Kramer doctored the footage so that Obama had either a red or a blue tie. Credit: Robin Kramer.

First, he showed volunteers a video of current POTUS, Barack Obama. Using visual effects software, Kramer created two versions of this video: one in which Obama’s tie was colored red; another in which the tie was blue. The videos were otherwise identical, and volunteers were shown only one video at random.

Tie color had no effect on ratings of leadership, dominance, or how believable Obama was.

In a follow-up study, Kramer tested whether tie color influences perceptions of an unfamiliar politician. He performed the same tie color manipulation on videos of former Canadian prime minister, Stephen Harper, and former Australian prime minister, Tony Abbott, both of whom are less well-known among English student volunteers than Obama. Again, there were no effects of tie color on ratings of leadership, dominance, or believability.

Why are Power Ties Powerless?

These results beg the question, why are power ties so powerless?

Although wearing red may well make a person feel more dominant, to the extent that it drives changes in performance than can lead to victory in competitive sports, the effect of red on the perceptions of others may be slight. Kramer speculates that, because politicians are often viewed in front of large colored backgrounds, any effect of their tie color may be smothered by a sensory overload coming from their environment.

As Kramer points out:

These findings suggest that red effects may have limited real-world applications within a political speech context and that the ‘‘red power tie’’ is only a myth.

Gage Skidmore/Flickr
Source: Gage Skidmore/Flickr

Today’s male politician is constrained in their fashion choices, and can only hope to stand out from the crowd of drab business suits with a striking choice of tie color. But perhaps ties are too small a canvas to work with.

This suggests the possibility that female candidates, who are freer to choose bold colored outfits, may be better able to leverage the power of red. Will Clinton be at an advantage if she turns up to next Monday’s presidential debate in a flaming red pantsuit?

More research is needed.

Edit: Trump turned up to the debate in a blue tie. Clinton wore a red suit. Clearly both of them read this blog ;)

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