In my previous post and in my book, Sensation: The New Science of Physical Intelligence, I showed how the color red influences the way men perceive women. Men who saw a photo of a woman against a red background perceived her as more attractive and sexier. But what about women’s perception of men? Does red enhance the desirability of men to women? This question is more complicated. Unlike women, sexy men are not necessarily portrayed wearing red shirts. The songs are all about “the lady in red” — there is no “man in red.”
Red is associated not only with sex but with dominance, especially in the animal world. Studies with various types of animals have shown that red in males signals dominance, which is preferred by females for mating. When kids go to the zoo and see the red rumps of some of the monkeys, they may laugh but the red butt is serious; males, especially alpha males (and not females) display red and it as a symbol of status.
Researchers from the United Kingdom found that the red color on the face, rump, and genitalia of male mandrills is a sign of dominance. When two males with a similar red color encountered each other, there were more fights and aggressive behavior. When one of the males exhibited a stronger red color, however, he was clearly more dominant, and the less dominant male avoided him.
Red signals dominance in other types of animals too. Even “artificial” red signals dominance and influences the behavior of zebra finches, common birds in Australia. Researchers arbitrarily placed red or green bands on the legs of zebra finches and found that those with the red bands were more dominant. Animal studies have also shown that females prefer dominant red males. For example, the three-spined stickleback fish appears red during breeding season. Researchers found that the females preferred males with more intense red color.
So enough about animals…what about humans? In the Western culture, dominance is considered a stereotypically masculine characteristic, and many studies have shown that women like dominant men and men with higher status.
Elliot and Niesta, with their colleagues, asked this question: “If red is associated with dominance and status, and if women prefer men with higher status, is it possible that women will find a man wearing a red item more attractive?” They showed groups of women the same photo of a man, where the only difference was the color of the background. They conducted several experiments on the effect of red on women’s perception of men. The researchers presented female students with black and white photos of a man on a red, white, or gray background. They then asked the women to rate how attractive they perceived the man to be and how sexually attracted they were to him.
Women who saw the photo of the man on a red background perceived him as more attractive and as more sexually desirable than women who saw the same photo on a white or gray background.
Similar results were found when, instead of the background, the researchers manipulated shirt color. Women were asked to judge a man wearing a red shirt or a green shirt. And wouldn’t you know it? The man with the red shirt was perceived as more attractive and desirable.
The researchers went one step further to examine what it is in the color red that affects women’s judgments of men. They once again presented female students with a photo of a man. As in the previous studies, all participants saw the same photo, but half saw the man wearing a red shirt and the other half a gray shirt. This time, they were asked to evaluate the status of the man and his status potential, that is, whether he had a high potential to succeed in the future and to earn a lot. The findings are extraordinary. Women who saw the man with the red shirt believed he had a higher status and a higher potential for status and success. In other words, exactly the same man was perceived as higher in status just because he wore a red shirt.
These experiments clearly demonstrate that the color red has a strong influence on women’s perception of men’s attractiveness and plays an important part in the attraction between the sexes. It seems that red signals a higher status, and higher status in men makes them more attractive and sexually desirable.
Men can easily apply these findings by wearing something red in social interactions and business meetings. Wearing a red tie or a red shirt may convey just enough status on a date to lead to success!
About the Author:
Thalma Lobel’s book is titled Sensation: The New Science of Physical Intelligence. Lobel is a professor of psychology at Tel Aviv University at the school of Psychological sciences and the director of the Adler Center for Research in Developmental Psychology and Psychopathology. Her research focuses on gender differences and gender roles and on embodied cognition. Her work has been published in prestigious journals including the Journal of Personality and Social Psychology, Developmental Psychology and Evolution and Human Behavior.