We will never know what our ancestors thought thousands of years ago, when we first picked up natural crayons and started painting their bodies.
But perhaps what is significant is that they chose a deep red ocher: the color of our blood and a vivid reminder of life and death.
Today, scarlet hues are associated with power, aggression and sex: from the vermilion of the royal symbols of the Queen of England to the flashy neon lights of Amsterdam’s red light district.
And those associations may not be a coincidence. A new branch of science called “color psychology” has found that red can have a profound effect on our moods, perceptions, and actions.
Even wearing red can have an effect on our physiology, on the balance of hormones and can alter performance in a soccer game. So why are ruby, crimson and scarlet shades so powerful?
There is no doubt that our perception of red coincides with one of the most important events in our evolutionary history. Many mammals, such as dogs, do not differentiate between red and green.
But as our early primate ancestors adapted to life in the jungle, a new type of cell evolved in their retina that allowed them to pick the bright red fruits from among the foliage. That enhanced perception then lent itself to new forms of social signaling.
Reddened skin, caused by the pumping of blood close to the skin’s surface, is an important sign of dominance for many primates.
Mandrills are perhaps the most famous example, with bright markings on their faces and rears indicating their position in the group’s strict hierarchy.
The fitter the individual is and the more dominant they are, the more red they will appear. Thus, by interpreting the abilities of competitors, lower-ranking primates can avoid fights that they are sure to lose.
It was only in 2004 that two Durham University psychologists, Russell Hill and Robert Barton, began to wonder if humans might also react in a similar way. Although we don’t usually turn red like a baboon, sometimes we do flare up with anger.
So red clothing could perhaps be associated with aggression and domination. Hill and Barton got stuck trying to find ways to investigate the idea. However, the perfect opportunity came with the Olympic Games in 2004.
In combat sports such as boxing and tae kwon do, athletes were randomly assigned red or blue outfits, making it easier for scientists to compare the performances of the same athletes when wearing different colors.
By tracking their progress in the games, Hill found that those who wore red suits were around 5% more likely to win the match than those who wore blue clothes.
“Just wearing red isn’t going to change you into a terrific competitor,” says Hill. “But it can help tip the balance between winning and losing when the competitors are pretty even.” This first “scarlet study” triggered a series of other experiments that produced similar results, such as footballers taking penalties: they are less likely to score if the goalkeeper is in red.
Quickly, the psychology of color became a credible area of science in its own right. “That work was really responsible for the revival of interest in colors and their possible effects,” says Andrew Elliot of the University of Rochester, in the New York State.
The exact reason for these effects is still a matter of debate. Elliot points to studies showing that those who wear red feel more dominant, triggering an increase in heart rate and testosterone, which could improve their performance.
Or red might intimidate the competitor in the same way that less dominant baboons avoid approaching their crimson-faced leaders. “If you see red you’re going through fear and inferiority and your testosterone will drop,” says Elliot.
Alternatively, it could also have an effect on the referees; A German team manipulated videos to change the costumes of tae kwon do players before showing them to professional referees. “Just the change of colors changed the way the experienced referees awarded the scores,” says Hill: the one in red was favored by the referee.
Away from sports arenas, similar thought processes could lead to failure in the casino. Playing with red poker chips seems to make people bet more than playing with blue or white chips, perhaps because they look like winners’ chips
From a more positive point of view, red clothing could also help you perform better in an interview. Some fashion experts suggest that red ties project authority and dominance in the workplace.
Perhaps the most studied effect is related to the association of hue with desire, seduction, and sin, an association that can be seen in everything from the Scarlet Whore of Babylon to Chris’s “Lady in Red.” from Burgh.
A series of experiments carried out by Elliot and colleagues have confirmed that both men and women are considered more attractive when they wear shades of red compared to others.
One possible explanation is that slightly redder skin, thanks to good circulation, seems to suggest health and fitness; perhaps, by transitive, the same is read from the clothes we wear.
Still, you would do well not to immediately change your wardrobe or paint the walls of the office. In some contexts, red can trigger other emotions, sometimes you don’t want.
For example, the perception of dominance can contribute to a man being attracted to the clothes he wears, but could potentially backfire. “If it’s a super bright red it could also suggest aggression, which could be a negative,” says Elliot. And I found that in the exam room, people performed worse on cognitive tests if the tests were given in a red envelope.
More importantly, at the moment, not all color psychology results are robust enough to be completely reliable. “I think the work is in a very early stage of development,” says Elliot.
Psychologists have yet to replicate their results and investigate exactly when the different effects occur, so they can be sure the early findings aren’t just red herrings. more productive work environment, but we are still far from that point. I think it would be grossly premature to regulate what color sports jerseys to wear or to ban red feathers.”
Elliot would also like to see more research work on the other colors in the rainbow. He has found that while red can hinder performance, green and blue can encourage creativity in certain types of word games. Still, Elliot suspects that the influence will be fairly limited compared to the potent effect red has on our behavior.
“The perception of red has evolved in so many important events and experiences,” says Elliot. “Red is the color of ripe fruit, of an angry face, of a person showing sexual arousal.” In this way, it will always be associated with survival, with connotations and influences that run deep within our being, like the blood in our veins.
Maybe we are just confirming what our ancestors realized when they went out to paint their bodies: there is no other color like it.