Seeing Red

Seeing the color red apparently has large influences on our behavior.  Referees award more points to competitors wearing red, who win more competitions.  Test takers scored worse if their subject number was written in red, women wearing red are asked on dates more, and so on:

“There is now good experimental evidence that red stimuli are perceived as dominant and that they cause negative effects on performance in those viewing them,” Barton says. “It is plausible that wearing red also makes individuals feel more confident, although this hasn’t yet been tested.” …  Mandrills, the world’s largest species of monkey, use colour as a means of conflict management. In males, red faces, rumps and genitalia act as a status symbol, communicating fighting ability. “The brighter red a male is, the higher his testosterone level and the more aggressive he is,” … Other primates use more subtle variations in facial redness to signal dominance. Rhesus monkeys, for example, become redder in the face in the mating season.

Barton believes that red is involved in human behaviour in a similar way. “Subtle variations in redness are conveying information about dominance, vigour and confidence. In an aggressive confrontation, confident individuals flush red with anger whereas frightened individuals go pale. … Even a brief glimpse of red can change human abilities and behaviour in all sorts of ways. … What consistently impresses researchers is the fact that their volunteers rarely suspect that colour plays an important, or indeed any, role in the outcome of an experiment. … “Given that the influence of colour on our behaviour is so prevalent, it’s shocking that we aren’t more aware of it.”

Yes, shocking.  We have two main stories for this lack of awareness: accident and purpose.  Some suggest we shouldn’t expect our conscious minds to know much about how our unconscious minds work, while others suggest an inquisitive and social species like humans could not long remain ignorant about something this important without substantial pressures discouraging such insight.

This purpose story makes more sense to me.  I can see two pressures against insight here:

  1. We avoid seeing our own status moves, including reacting to red as a dominance marker.
  2. We identify ourselves as making decisions based on respectable criteria, which don’t include red effects.
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  • Mike

    Haven’t people known that red is a power color for decades? Red = “power tie.”

  • Norman

    So if you’re color blind, are you immune to this bias? Or do you still recognize that there is this thing society calls “red,” and react to it when you are aware of its presence?

  • I’m not sure if this is obvious, but what is the proposed benefit to not being aware of one’s status moves on a conscious level? In the acting case it seemed like they benefitted from being aware (although of course they were only acting).

    Is it that we will be distracted trying to pull them (why be aware of your breathing?), or feel bad for dominating others or bad about being dominated?

    • Consider what we infer about the people among us who do explicitly think and talk about their actions as dominating or submitting to others. It usually isn’t positive.

      • OK, this makes low-awareness a now stable equilibrium but why develop that dislike for overt status concern in the first place (especially as it doesn’t actually reduce that behaviour any, but rather drives it underground)? We punish other unacceptable anti-social behaviour, but we don’t seem in general to punish status moves, except when they are unusual and inappropriate.

        Would thinking about status moves too much simply make it impossible to convincingly project a pro-social identity in other situations?

      • A situation to imagine to help work it out:

        A human tribe exists with both conscious status movers and some new subconscious status movers. Nobody has any preference for associating with one of these yet. What benefit might I get by choosing to be associated with subconscious status movers rather than the conscious ones? Might they be more reliable due to having a stupider subconscious, at least at this early point? Might they seem more altruistic at first, even if later on they prove not to be?

  • michael vassar

    Evolution is dumb. I’ll say it again, “Toddlers and baboons need to be explicitly taught or otherwise learn (and many fail to learn) how to hide”. Hiding is pretty clearly very evolutionarily useful, and it doesn’t seem that hard to evolve to know how to do it. It’s simple enough to learn that humans of near-ordinary intelligence always figure it out (unlike most color associations). By default, we haven’t got innate knowledge of X for most possible values of X.

    • OK, but why aren’t we explicitly taught about red effects or about our other status moves.

      • michael vassar

        Most teaching sucks. Typical people barely learn how to read, drive, do basic arithmetic, etc. There are a LOT of things about as important as particular status moves. Also, non-nerds see little point in learning explicitly what their brains already implicitly know, and they implicitly know how to respond to red, for instance, by responding to it, and how others will respond by empathy. What more to want?

    • Michael – if you had asked the judges, “are you influenced by the red colour of the shirts”, do you think they would have said “yes, of course”?

  • kevin

    Regarding power ties, the great majority of presidential debate ties since color television have been red. Reagan was noted for red ties, and by 1988 both candidates were wearing red. In 2004 both candidates wore red.

    Interestingly, I seem to recall a West Wing episode where the president was preparing for the debate and an aide insisted that he wear a red tie.

  • Women seem to know about this effect – at least subconsciously – at least they seem to know enough to wear red dresses when it counts.

    How unconscious is the effect? It seems wrong to assume that people don’t know about it without attempting to measure the extent of their knowledge. Do even fashion designers not know? What about readers of New Scientist?

  • Pyramid Head

    What about shyness?? I always flush red whenever I’m in embarassed, and this tends to further embarass me (specially when people notice and point it out).

    No dominance here…

    • My sentiments exactly!
      Is embarassement about showing that you want dominance, but you have failed? You still get red, sweaty and agitated, but you fail to act accordingly.

  • I’ve picked a hint or two that red is a more important color for men than for women– including an account by an FTM transsexual that red became more noticeable.

    This doesn’t mean red doesn’t stand out for women, but it may well stand out a lot more for men.

  • Matt

    Is it really that subconcious? I assume fasion designers use red when they are trying to make a bold statement. It’s also described as a loud color. I think most people have thought about this before. We use red on danger signs because it sticks out. When people pick out red clothing, I’m sure they often think about how it sticks out.

    I’m really curious about other colors, especially blue. I’m assuming they have very different effects.

  • I believe there is too much information being processed at any one given time for any particular individual throughout their frame of experience. It seems only natural that we have this separation between conscious and unconscious awareness, as all the information that we perceive cannot be processed at the same level of awareness at that particular instant. Our fears, belief’s, goals, values, and sensory modalities filter out what is relevant or has immediate bearing on our current state of being.

    Colors are perceived as such because of the way the mind interprets the frequency. Frequency causes a varying biological effect based on its intensity “amplitude”, which in turn creates a psychological state based on our interpretation of what we are feeling. I’m not aware of the correspondences between the full spectrum of colors and various psychological states, but I presume that what is going on here is a combination of the unconscious interpretation effect coupled with the intensity effect. We tend to “tune in” to the “loud” noises at first because they make an impression upon our normal state…(hence they would not be deemed loud).

    Red is the longest wavelength of light. It is one of the primary colors. It is the color of our blood and is most commonly associated with heat. Think about all the different applications that use the color red. I agree it is no coincidence that red is chosen for the specific roles it plays in our lives. Whether deliberately or unconsciously, we have taken this notion and incorporated its effect into our daily lives.

  • Wow, 16 comments on the topic of a non-color impact of red on our minds, and not *one* mention of the qualia debate?

    If red is coupled to other feelings, that would be a way to determine whether you and I have the same internal experience of red. We can check this with color blind people right now.

    • What about colorblind people? Are they actually able to distinguish colors implicitly, by emotional reactions, or maybe some analogue of blindsight? Or are you just suggesting research?

      • tut

        There are some colorblind people who react to colors that they can’t consciously see. But most colorblinds either simply lack green photoreceptors or have different receptors. The last ones see green as a shade of red, but can distinguish two different colors that non-“colorblinds” see as a boring yellow/grey.

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  • tut

    OK, this makes low-awareness a now stable equilibrium but why develop that dislike for overt status concern in the first place (especially as it doesn’t actually reduce that behaviour any, but rather drives it underground)? We punish other unacceptable anti-social behaviour, but we don’t seem in general to punish status moves, except when they are unusual and inappropriate.

    In the ancestral environment a dominance move was the equivalent of challenging somebody to a match of submisson wrestling. The natural reaction if you do that when you aren’t really dominant relative to the person you challenge is to accept the challenge and beat you into a pulp. The resentment you meet from consciously starting status games is the civilized and moderated version of that beating.

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  • Gary

    Reminds me of Jude Law’s character in “I Heart Huckabees”. At first, he consistently wows friends and business associates with a funny story involving him and a famous actress. Later, Dustin Hoffman’s character points out that he only tells the story to show off. After that, people beg him to tell the story but he can’t deliver it with any conviction. Awareness of his status signalling ruined his ability to effectively signal.

    In general, awareness of our attempts to manipulate others is difficult to reconcile with the thought that “I’m a great person”. There may be nothing so important to being an effective cooperator than maintaining that belief.

  • For what it is worth. Colour is an attribute of constraint on the flow of mass.