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Expert Comment: Colour Effect and the colour red

Red paint Wednesday 13 May 2015

Professor Galina Paramei, Colour Vision Scientist from the Department of Psychology looks at the world of colour effects following research covered in the news about the interesting effects of the colour red.

The news swayed through all UK media today (13th May 2015): ‘Red makes men look angry’ (e.g.

The headlines followed publication by the group of evolutionary anthropologists and psychologists led by Professor Robert A. Barton, Durham University:

The authors found that men wearing red t-shirts, compared to those wearing grey or blue t-shirts, were judged as more dominant and aggressive – by men (but not women). They relate their finding on “the red effect” to two known phenomena:

Red Tie

(i) conveyed power and confidence in men wearing red-tie‌

(ii) advantageous effect for teams wearing red (over blue) in sport, promoting aggression and competitiveness within teams and intimidating opponents. football


Note though that previous studies demonstrated a stronger effect of red in combat sports where direct physical dominance is the aim, and the red of blood, both spilled and drained from the face of a frightened opponent, is more visible and salient.

Politicians, businessmen and interviewees are made aware of the red effect. Also, Professor Barton is going to talk to organisers of combat sports about the possibility of introducing new rules on competitors wearing red, to avoid the colour being used to unfair advantage.

The story of the red effect is, of course, far from being complete: as Elliot and Maier point out in their exhaustive review (2014) “Color psychology: Effects of perceiving color on psychol­ogical functioning in humans”, before strong conceptual statements and recommendations for application are warranted, one should consider “boundary conditions, moderators and real-world generalizability”, as well as “social norms and conventions (that vary by country)”.

With regards to appearance, the Durham study participants were asked about just two appearance characteristics, dominance and aggressiveness. Notably, in other studies (e.g. Stephen et al., 2012) it was found, in addition, that women rate men wearing red shirt (relative to white and several chromatic colours) as more attractive and, moreover, men wearing red perceive themselves to be more attractive, relative to, say, blue.

In sports, the red effect is not omnipotent: Archival analyses reveal that red did not boost team performance of elite football leagues in Germany, Poland and Spain or of the National Hockey League in North America. This suggests that the red effect may be present in some countries but not others, perhaps as a function of culture-specific learned associations to red that run counter to, and weaken the influence of, any inherent meaning. Likewise, the strength of the red effect may vary as a function of team versus one-on-one competition or collaborative versus combat sport.

In their future study the Durham group intends to explore the red effect for females. Noteworthy, studies in Evolutionary Psychology demonstrate that men perceive a woman in red to be more attractive.

And, there exist other colours, of course, whose effects are not uninteresting – in achievement and attraction contexts, consumer behaviour as well as food and beverage evaluation and consumption. E.g. there is evidence suggesting that viewing blue or green may be particularly beneficial for creative performance or viewing green (relative to red or grey) during a cycling task leads to less perceived exertion. The world of “colour effects” is your oyster!


Prof Galina Paremei

Professor Galina Paramei

Department of Psychology

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