At an intersection, red is a signal to stop. But in women's apparel, the color sends a very different message.
Like their counterparts elsewhere in the animal kingdom, men have a strong but unconscious attraction to the color red, according to two University of Rochester psychologists. In a recent paper with practical ramifications for New Year's Eve gatherings, they conclude that men perceive women in red as more attractive and more sexually desirable than those clothed in other colors.
This derives from "the biologically based predisposition to perceive red as a sexual signal," write co-authors Andrew Elliot and Daniela Niesta. They note that women's use of red lipstick and rouge dates back at least 10,000 years, to the ancient Egyptians.
Many nonhuman primates — including baboons and chimpanzees — display red on some part of their body when they are nearing ovulation, generally because increased estrogen levels enhance blood flow just under the surface of the skin.
"Our findings confirm what many women have long suspected and claimed: that men act like animals in the sexual realm," the researchers write in the Journal of Personality and Social Psychology. "As much as men might like to think that they respond to women in a thoughtful, sophisticated manner, it appears that at least to some degree, their preferences and predilections are, in a word, primitive."
Elliot and Niesta conducted five experiments to confirm their thesis, all of which used American college students as test subjects. In the first, 27 young men (average age 20) looked at a photograph of a woman roughly their own age. The image was placed against either a red or a white background.
By a significant margin, the men who viewed the woman on a red background perceived her as more attractive. Interestingly, "Participants were unaware of the fact that the experiment focused on color and attractiveness, and they indicated that color had a minimal influence on their rating of the woman."
The experiment was repeated with a mix of men and women as test subjects. Once again, the men found the woman pictured against the red background more attractive, but the color did not have an impact on the men's assessment of her looks.
In two follow-up experiments, male students were shown an image of a woman against either a red or a green background or against either a red or a gray background. In both cases, the woman was rated as more attractive when the backdrop was red. In the red vs. gray test, participants were also asked to rate her overall likability; the background color did not have an impact on that measure, suggesting the hue is linked specifically to sexual desirability.
Finally, 23 male undergrads were shown a photo of the same woman wearing either a red or a blue shirt. Those who saw the woman in red "perceived her to be more attractive, were more sexually attracted to her, and indicated a greater likelihood of asking her on a date," the researchers report.
Elliot and Niesta add several caveats to their findings. They note that sexual attraction is a product of many factors, and it's far from clear that red overrides everything else. The woman in the photo used in the experiment was considered moderately attractive; the hue of her clothing may not be as strong a factor if the woman in question is either extremely attractive or extremely unattractive.
Nevertheless, the effect of red is real, and the researchers suggest women take that into account when they dress up for a night on the town. They note that a woman who dresses in red simply because she likes the way it looks "may inadvertently send sexual signals to men that result in unwanted romantic advances."
In a sentence worthy of Carrie Bradshaw, they add, "Men have a strong tendency to attach sexual meaning to women's ambiguous clues, and are likely to see sex in red, regardless of the signaler's intent."
But does this dynamic work in other direction? Does the hue retain its allure when it is on a male body — say, in the form of a red necktie? Elliot and Niesta have begun to examine that question, and their preliminary evidence suggests that "a display of red on a man indeed increases his attractiveness to women."
No wonder Bozo the clown always had a smile on his face.