Tag Archives: Unconscious

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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