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Red Alert: The Color of Danger Influences Behavior

A new study suggests the color red can serve as a danger signal to our unconscious minds, making people more likely to take actions that enhance their safety.
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Evidence continues to mount that the color red conveys primal messages to our unconscious minds. As we reported last year, men perceive women wearing red as more attractive and sexually desirable than those clothed in other hues. Now, a new study suggests the color can serve as a danger signal, making people more likely to take actions that enhance their safety.

Psychologists Mary Gerend and Tricia Sias of Florida State University presented 134 male undergraduates with pamphlets urging vaccination against the human papillomavirus, the most common sexually transmitted infection in the United States. Half of the pamphlets emphasized the benefits of getting vaccinated, while the other half emphasized the risks of remaining unprotected.

In addition, half of the pamphlets in each category were accented with either the color red or gray.

The students were surveyed after they read the material. Those who received the gain-framed message expressed roughly the same level of interest in getting vaccinated, regardless of the color of their pamphlet.

But for those who received the loss-framed message, the color priming made a huge difference, with those who got the red-tinged pamphlets reporting far greater interest in the vaccine than those who got the gray version. (They also expressed much more interest in the vaccine than those who received the gain-framed pamphlets.)

Why would this be? "Red commonly conjures images of blood, injury and infection," the researchers note in their paper, published in the Journal of Experimental Social Psychology. "Moreover, the color red is used regularly to denote physical risk and danger on warning labels, traffic signals and threat advisory signals. Indeed, evidence suggests that red is the single color most commonly associated with threat in our society."

So the color apparently sends a signal that confirms or enhances the danger message spelled out in the pamphlet, giving it greater impact.

"On a practical level," the researchers conclude, "findings suggest that subtle changes in wording and color could be integrated into public health campaigns to promote health behavior." Indeed, one can imagine a mandate for red lettering on, say, cigarette-box warning labels.

To recast an old motto: Better red than dead.