This time of year, both fans of Valentine’s Day and V-day haters are bound to have a few things on the brain. One major association we have with the holiday is love and attraction. Another big one is the color red, with decorative hearts, cards, clothing and candy bombarding the senses in stores across the country. But it turns out that attraction and the color red have more in common than just Valentine’s Day; in fact, the color red may be the key to your loved one’s heart.
Simply wearing red elicits higher ratings of attractiveness, both when men rate women (Elliot, 2008) and when women rate men (Elliot, 2010). In both studies, ratings were contrasted for pictures of people wearing red versus other colors, such as gray, blue and green, and seeing red consistently led to enhanced attractiveness ratings. This effect is not just a cultural phenomenon; the finding was replicated when Chinese participants performed the same experiment. The participants were also unaware that the color had an effect on their judgments, so it can’t be explained by a general preference for the color red. So what is the source of red’s seductive powers?
Some psychologists suspect that humans place a high value on the color red for evolutionary reasons. For many non-human species, red is a signal of physical fitness that can help attract mates, as is the case for male gelada baboons and frigatebirds, who advertise an enlarged red sac that is remarkably similar to a heart-shaped balloon:
Thus, our preference for seeing red on the opposite sex could stem from a primitive mechanism that evolved to increase mating behavior.
Alternatively, we may be attracted to people wearing red because of learned associations. For instance, in Western culture, people learn to associate red with a diverse range of concepts, from positive (romance, fast cars) to negative (red marks on failed assignments) to dangerous things (blood, fire alarms). The story gets even more complicated when you consider what other cultures associate with red; in Eastern cultures, for example, red is considered lucky and is associated with weddings in China. But Elliot and colleagues emphasize that context plays an important role in how red affects our perception and behavior at any given moment. So the color red carries a different meaning when we encounter a stop sign versus a potential date.
In a recent study, Elliot and colleagues (2010) tested the theory that status may be an especially important cross-culture symbol associated with red, the color of choice for both classical Roman power players and contemporary politicians. Specifically, the authors reasoned that women may be more attracted to men wearing red because red is a marker of high rank. In two separate experiments, they showed first that women rated men wearing red as having higher status than men wearing gray or blue. Second, women rated images of high-status men (as described by the experimenters) as more sexually attractive than low-status men. Taken together, the authors claim that women prefer men who wear red because it signals high status, a quality that leads to attraction.
While this theory could explain why women prefer men wearing red, it doesn’t explain why men also prefer women in red. Although this is an empirical question, a woman’s status isn’t exactly the first factor that comes to mind when determining her level of attractiveness. To reconcile this issue, Elliot and colleagues suggest that men and women may both be attracted to the color red, but for different reasons.
However, another problem with the status theory is that it conflates status and confidence. It’s possible that what both men and women are responding to when they see the opposite gender in red is a sense of confidence–after all, it takes guts to wear such a bold color. Wearing red is a way of saying, “I’m an awesome person, and I’m not afraid to show it!” Confidence and status are often correlated, so maybe the women in these studies were basing their judgments of attraction on how confident the men seemed, with men in red appearing more confident than those wearing more subdued colors like blue and gray. In the end, no matter what color you’re wearing, confidence is always sexy–wearing red may just help you express that confidence.
Eliot, A.J., Kayser, D.N., Greitemeyer, T., Lichtenfeld, S., Gramzow, R.H., Maier, M.A., & Liu, H. (2010). Red, rank and romance in women viewing men Journal of Experimental Psychology: General
Elliot, A., & Niesta, D. (2008). Romantic red: Red enhances men’s attraction to women. Journal of Personality and Social Psychology, 95 (5), 1150-1164 DOI: 10.1037/0022-3522.214.171.1240