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The Mysterious Power of Red

The powerful color may affect you in ways you don't even realize.

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Throughout history and across cultures, the color red has held strong symbolic meaning. Red is the color of romance—think red roses. Red is also associated with sexuality—think the Lady in Red. Red is also linked to physical aggression—think blood.

But the scarlet hue may also wield a kind of psychological power—one that appears to be out of our conscious awareness. Here are three domains in which the color red exerts curious influence:

Sex. Research has revealed that red is associated with heightened attractiveness among some female nonhuman primates. Along parallel lines, studies have also found that men have greater sexual interest in women who wear red. In one study that illustrates this finding to the extreme, participants were shown photographs of women wearing either a red, blue, green, or white T-shirt, and then asked to evaluate both the women's attractiveness and sexual intent. What did the researchers find? Remarkably, the men in this study perceived greater sexual intent when the woman wore red, even when the factor of physical attractiveness was controlled. Given that the genital area of some of our female primate relatives turns red during estrus, probably to attract males, might this effect be a remnant of our evolutionary past?

Achievement. Studies have also shown that the sight of red can hinder performance on achievement tasks because it is associated with the threat of failure, and can trigger avoidance. Even when people see just a flash of red before being tested, it conjures associations with mistakes and failure. Subsequently, poor performance may follow. For example, a series of four experiments found that the fleeting sight of red before an IQ test or important exam was found to impair performance. Could the association between red ink and corrections be to blame?

Dominance. Research demonstrates that a person or team wearing the color red has a better chance of winning a physical contest than a person or team wearing a different color. Consider a study in which participants were asked to imagine competing against individuals of their same sex in two different scenarios: Wearing red themselves or competing against an opponent wearing red. The results: Wearing red heightened perceptions one's own dominance and threat, and viewing an opponent in red heightened perceptions of the opponent's dominance and threat. These findings held true for both men and women. Does the association between anger and the reddening of skin in humans, which results from increased blood flow, explain this phenomenon?

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Vinita Mehta, Ph.D. is a licensed Clinical Psychologist in Washington, D.C., and an expert on relationships, managing anxiety and stress, and building health and resilience. Dr. Mehta provides speaking engagements for your organization and psychotherapy for adults. She has successfully worked with individuals struggling with depression, anxiety, and life transitions, with a growing specialization in recovery from trauma and abuse. She is also the author of the forthcoming book, Paleo Love: How Our Stone Age Bodies Complicate Modern Relationships.

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