The color red is commonly acknowledged as being linked with passion and sexuality. Eve’s red apple is a symbol of seduction. Valentine cards, symbolizing romantic love, are often red. In films, from Marilyn Monroe in ‘Niagara’ to ‘The Woman in Red’, to Jessica Rabbit, iconic in her slinky red dress, beautiful women (and rabbits) wear red. But is there any scientific proof that red indeed evokes associations to passion and attractiveness? Can the color red alone make men perceive women differently, as more beautiful and attractive?
Scientists recently conducted several experiments to examine whether red really enhances men’s attraction to women. They presented several groups of men a black-and-white photo of the head and upper torso of the same woman. Men in one group viewed the photo against a red background, while men in the other groups viewed the same photo but against a different colored background such as white, green, or blue. Men who viewed a woman against a red background perceived her as being more attractive, more desirable and sexier.
Furthermore, they stated a greater desire to date her and even to spend more money on her on their date. Remember, all men saw exactly the same photo. Interestingly, the men had no idea that red was a factor in their decisions. They were all asked what they thought was affecting their perception most: the woman’s facial expression, the way she was dressed, or the color of the background. They indicated that the color had the least influence on their decision.
The researchers conducted several experiments with different photos and with different physical traits, expressions, and clothing. They showed photos of blond women and brunette women; women who wore turtleneck sweaters and women who wore striped button-down shirts; women who were smiling and women who had a neutral expression. They compared the red background with gray, green, and blue backgrounds, as well as with white. In one experiment, instead of coloring the background of the picture, the researchers tinted the woman’s shirt red, blue, green, or gray. The results were always similar. Men perceived the woman in the picture with the red background or shirt as more attractive and they were more interested in dating her than the exact same woman against other backgrounds or in a different colored shirt.
To verify the extent of red’s influence, the men were then asked to judge the woman on aspects unrelated to physical attractiveness such as her likability, how nice, honest, friendly, intelligent, and kind they believed she was. Red had no effect on the men’s judgments of the woman’s likability or intelligence. That is, men did not perceive the woman with the red background as more (or less) nice, intelligent, or kind than the (same) woman with a different color background.
Although we know that red is associated with love and passion, few of us would probably expect that simply changing the background color of a woman’s picture would strongly influence men’s judgments of her and their intentions to date her. Of course, the colors around you (even red) are not the ultimate factor in your choices or behaviors, just one of many. But the color red has a strong influence and being mindful of it can make a difference.
Women often debate what to wear in everyday life—well, if you want to look more attractive to men, red is now your scientifically approved go-to color. A red blouse or a red hat will make you stand out in a crowd, but so will a less conspicuous red item, such as a scarf, a ribbon, lipstick, or even a red T-shirt over blue jeans. Of course, red can also be overused, like adding too much spice to food, so it’s also helpful to know when not to wear red, for example, when signaling attractiveness is inappropriate.
When you are planning to go to any kind of meeting, whether business, social, or romantic, you might well ask yourself, “How do I want to be perceived?” and decide accordingly on the color of your outfit. Then again, you might decide that you don’t really care how you’re perceived and wear only what you like and what makes you feel comfortable. Maybe the poets were almost onto something: roses are red, violets are blue … but ’tis color itself my mind loves about you.
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.