Red Perception

By Tanya Silverman

Photo courtesy of Garry Knight.

Quite a colorful secret to success exists for posting your selfies on dating websites: the color red.

Adam Alter, Associate Professor at NYU of Marketing and Psychology, has written extensively about how humans perceive different colors. Red, as he cites in several studies and different circumstances, is the consistent frontrunner for romance and attraction.

Alter spoke with BTR about how wearing red plays into the dynamic of profile photographs on dating platforms, greater behavioral patterns in the animal kingdom, and observations from athletes wearing red uniforms on the sports field.

BreakThru Radio (BTR): Let’s talk about some of your findings and writings about how people perceive others in pictures when they wear the color red. Can you expand upon that?

Adam Alter (AA): The research is not actually my research, it’s some research by some other people–but I write about it in my book, Drunk Tank Pink.

What the researchers have actually found (in a whole range of different studies) is that people seem to be more romantically attracted to a person when that person wears red rather than other colors.

One of the studies had a whole lot of [women] on a dating site. Every two months for a year they would wear a different color shirt on their profile picture. Nothing else was changing in their profile; the only thing that varied was the color of their shirts.

They found that the women got more emails and messages when they happened to wear red rather than a whole range of other colors like blue, black, orange, or green. [The conclusion] basically argued that there’s something about the color red that makes women more attractive to men.

Now there are a whole range of other studies showing the same effect in the other direction and also studies showing the same effect in same-sex attraction. So it doesn’t really matter who is looking at whom. You get the same effect: that red seems to make whomever is being perceived more attractive.

BTR: You’ve also written about some biological associations with red, like how when people are attracted to others, their faces tend to flush red. Also, how women’s red tone heightens during ovulation and decreases when they’re infertile. Would you say the taste for red is mostly biological, not cultural or racial?

AA: I think there’s a pretty strong argument to be made that there’s something biological about the color red. We associate it with the face that you get when you’re romantically interested in someone. It’s associated with the times of the month when women are more fertile.

It’s associated with dominance among low-order animals, which is one of the strong arguments people make for biological mechanisms for various effects. When you see the same effect outside of humans and with animals, you can argue that it’s general across species. Some animals–like certain kinds of birds and apes–are more attractive to potential mates when they have red in their faces. It’s not just about humans wearing red shirts; it seems to persist in the animal kingdom.

It could be that those biological underpinnings then led us to associate red with certain romantic concepts, like how we draw the red hearts and think of Valentine’s Day. That could be because one day, a long time ago, we happened to decide that red, love… attraction and romance should go together. [However], I think that there was something biological that existed first before those associations that pushed us to associate attraction with the color red.

BTR: You’ve cited a few studies where people are attracted to others for red. Do you think these same results would come up for studies where people have red complexions, women are wearing red lipstick, or someone’s hair color is red?

AA: I think they would. There was another study where if you have people wearing grey shirts, that if the border that surrounds the picture is red, they also seem more attractive.

The color red can be quite far removed from the people themselves. Obviously wearing a shirt is more direct, or wearing lipstick is more direct, but even when it seems like the color is fairly removed from the person that’s being perceived, you still seem to get the same effect.

BTR: Do you think it’s possible that some people chose not to wear red because they don’t want others to just perceive them as sexually attractive when they post online dating pictures? [As in] maybe they’d want to wear a different color to seem sympathetic or perhaps have some kind of intellectual appeal.

AA: That’s certainly possible. We also have very strong cultural norms associating say, the red dress, with femme fatales. We have this sense that red signals a certain personality type, or maybe people are trying to portray a certain set of characteristics about themselves–as purely just appealing to look at. [As a result], they might do exactly that and shy away from red. They might have intuition that red may signify this kind of approach.

There’s no really strong evidence of that that I’ve seen in the literature. [Nevertheless], we’re quite constantly managing the impressions we give other people–so if there’s any intuition associated with attractiveness that we’re putting ourselves out there romantically, I could certainly imagine people choosing other colors specifically for that reason.

BTR: Is there anything else you’d like to mention about the color red?

AA: There’s a lot of research in other areas. There’s some research in sports showing that those who wear red tend to do better than competitors wearing other colors like blue, [especially in games]… that involve dominance. It’s possible that dominance might come through when people are wearing red.

People may say it’s possible that’s why men seem more attractive when they are wearing red, as it’s possible that red signals dominance rather than attraction. They seem strong and maybe a little bit aggressive.