In 1979, noted psychiatrist Dr. Alexander Schauss conducted a series of studies designed to measure the mental and physical strength of one hundred and fifty young men. Arriving at the laboratory, each man was invited into a small room where one of two cardboard signs was held up in front of them. After looking directly at the card for one minute, they were invited to take part in a series of physical strength tests. Sometimes they were asked to raise their arms directly in front of their bodies while downward pressure was applied. On other occasions, a dynamometer test was used to give a more accurate measurement. Regardless of the test employed, it quickly became apparent that the cardboard signs each man was asked to gaze at first had a remarkable influence over their subsequent physical performance. There were no words on these cardboard signs. Nor were there images on them either. They differed only in color.
One was blue, the other pink.
It’s easy to dismiss the results of Schauss’ experiments as fluke. And given the weakening effect the pink card had on the men’s physical strength it’s even easier to label them a crude demonstration of a widely held stereotype. But to do so would be a mistake. In the thirty or so years since these experiments were conducted, behavioral scientists have developed increasingly sophisticated ways of studying how our environment shapes decisions and behaviors. Their results leave little room for doubt. While we’d like to think that our decisions are always the result of effortful cognition, the reality is somewhat different. Much of our behavior is driven by unconscious cues present in our environment. One of these cues is color, influencing a wide array of decisions and behaviors from how competitive or creative we are, to who we find attractive on dating sites and even if we’ll say ‘Yes’ to the offer of a second helping at next weekend’s dinner party.
Even though her nominative connection to the color green didn’t hinder Jade Jones from winning a gold medal in the women’s taekwondo at the London 2012 Olympics, one wonders if her red outfit might have helped. A study by Russell Hill from Durham University and published in Nature suggests that it might well have. In reviewing the outcomes from four different Olympic combat sports where contestants were randomly assigned either red or blue outfits, Hill found that those who wore red won significantly more often than those in blue. Of course, it is important to note that wearing red tipped the balance between winning and losing only in contests between individuals of similar ability. So no amount of red will make a poor performer a good one but it might make a good one a bit better. But why? A 2011 study published in the Journal of Sport & Exercise Psychology provides a potential answer. Wearing red primes our perceptions of dominance. Conversely, viewing an opponent in red enhances our perceptions of them as a threat and in combat situations this can have a dual effect. By wearing red, we potentially enhance our dominance and because our opponent sees us wearing red we simultaneously reduce theirs.
Fortunately, most of us will rarely find ourselves in the sort of combative situation where it will be necessary to personally test if wearing red does indeed provide an edge. But there are some more commonly occurring situations where it could provide a distinct advantage.
Data analyzed from eBay auctions show that red backgrounds generally result in high bid jumps in online auctions compared to blue. A fact that might be worth remembering when you get around to clearing out your loft or garage. In fact, not only could red earn you more when selling those unwanted trinkets, it might also help when selling yourself.
Writing in the Journal of Experimental Social Psychology, psychologist Adam Pazda describes the seductive qualities of red. Men who saw photographs of women wearing a red top (compared to the same women in white or green) rated them as more attractive. But before planning that trip to the store know that red has its downsides too. Another study demonstrated how performance in an IQ test was impaired significantly after being exposed to the color.
Of course, if you prefer to present yourself as a more intellectual type then blue or green might be a better choice. Both have been shown to enhance our thinking and creative performance. They could help you at work too! To avoid a bloody bidding war in that next negotiation, maybe choose the pastel blue or green room to do your haggling rather than the bright red one.
Color can influence our behavior even further, in fact, it could possibly help you to shed a few pounds. People have a tendency to serve themselves more food when the color of the food matches the color of their plate. For example, white pasta sauce on a white plate. But they serve themselves less when the food is on a plate of a contrasting color. Whether that means that you can encourage your kids to eat more vegetables simply by serving up broccoli and cabbage on a green plate remains to be seen though.
Discussion questions - Answer in the comments below:
- How can you use color to influence the behavior of others?
- Reflecting on the article above, what behaviors have been influenced by color in your business negotiations?
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Alter, A. (2013). Drunk Tank Pink: And other unexpected forces that shape how we think, feel, and behave. features a wonderful chapter on the influence of color and is highly recommended.
Elliot, A. J., Tracy, J. L., Pazda, A. D., & Beall, A. T. (2013). Red enhances women's attractiveness to men: First evidence suggesting universality. Journal of Experimental Social Psychology, 49(1), 165-168.
Feltman, R., & Elliot, A. J. (2011). The influence of red on perceptions of relative dominance and threat in a competitive context. Journal of Sport & Exercise Psychology, 33(2), 308-314.
Hill, R. A., & Barton, R. A. (2005). Psychology: red enhances human performance in contests. Nature, 435(7040), 293-293.
Schauss, A. G. (1979). Tranquilizing effect of color reduces aggressive behavior and potential violence. Journal of Orthomolecular Psychiatry, 8(4), 218-221.