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Colors: they determine our feelings; they determine our lives. The color red seems particularly powerful. This is expressed in various fields like language, literature, and culture. The history of religion also reveals that early on, ecclesiastical institutions used the diverse expressiveness of this color. They used it as projection surface and symbol of authority. In the 11th century, the Roman Catholic Church started using red clothing to signify their highest dignitaries. In 1295, Pope Boniface VIII issued a decree stating that cardinals had to wear red cassocks. Today, they are still clothed in scarlet red. How aware are people of the fascination humans have with this color? How do people use it? These issues play a role in a current research project led by Dr. Daniela Niesta Kayser. With a team of researchers from the University of Potsdam, Ludwig-Maximilians-Universität München, and the University of Wuppertal, the psychologist is examining the influence of the color red on human perception and social exchange processes.
A study participant looks at a picture of a woman in a red t-shirt. The experimenter gives them five seconds to look at it. Then the participant has to assess the woman’s attractiveness on a questionnaire and answer many other questions. Three test groups all have to imagine a certain relationship goal. Scenarios include some being told to imagine themselves walking in the park with somebody, with others being told to do this while holding hands with someone they are in love with. A particular partnership goal is gradually evoked in all participants. Researchers call this process “priming”. The goal stored in the brain will later play a crucial role in assessing the attractiveness of the pictured woman.
“With this method, we can better examine certain influences and psychological processes,” explains Daniela Niesta Kayser. “It could be, for example, that the color red only leads to more attractiveness in a sexual context but not in a platonic one.” Her team has set out to identify more about the sexual effect of the color red. What causes this exactly? Is its influence in the so-called affiliation context, i.e. in interpersonal relationships, closely related to the motive of sex? Or does it also increase attractiveness when it comes to friendship or love? Other questions will follow. “We want to find out if the results can be transferred to the attractiveness perception of other ethnicities,” explains Niesta Kayser. Initial studies on this specific issue have already been carried out on an imaging scanner at the University of Vienna.
How is it that people see red, and when do we do it? Strictly speaking, it is a stimulus that is perceived when light hits the eye in a spectral distribution usually at a wavelength of over 600 nanometers. This falls outside of the visible spectrum of most mammals. The human eye, however, reacts very sensitively to it, which is also why the color is often used for warning signals.
Niesta Kayser has been studying the effect of red on men and women for some time now. The current project is a direct continuation of existing studies. She and her colleagues will go beyond the mere aesthetic assessment and effect in order to research the psychological meaning of red, because we imbue colors with psychological meaning and significance far beyond mere aesthetics. They can – the researcher is convinced – convey various aspects of information and add a functional value to the aesthetic one. The psychologist agrees with other colleagues that the signaling function of red, in a performance context for example, represents only one aspect of many. In an affiliation context, which particularly interests her, the color seems to have a quite positive effect. Her previous studies confirm this. “Compared to achromatic and other chromatic colors, red leads to a motivational appetitive signal (that is, promoting an approach) in women and men who look at a person of the opposite sex,” she states. Her work on the subject has shown that this effect occurs unconsciously and automatically. Those affected cannot influence it. The perception and assessment processes are subconscious. Not only that: The observer systematically underestimates the impact of color, “that is, when asked what factors (hair, clothing, facial expression, t-shirt color) most likely influenced their attractiveness assessment.”
Based on a series of experiments, Niesta Kayser has created more evidence that women in red clothing or standing against a red background are seen as more attractive and desirable. Five experiments with a total of 181 test participants confirmed the effect. In the first experiment, two groups of male subjects saw a picture of a woman of average attractiveness against a white or a red background. The participants were allowed to look at it for only five seconds in order to keep the time for each participant constant and draw conclusions. Then the subjects had to rate the item on a scale from 1 (not at all) to 9 (extremely). The questions were, for example, “How pretty do you find the woman in the picture?” or “How attractive do you think the woman in the picture is?” The results showed that the men assessed the same woman as more attractive when presented in front of a red background.
Niesta Kayser has also investigated the universality of the attractiveness enhancing effect of the color red with other researchers in the US as well as in England, Germany, China, and even Burkina Faso. The result remained the same; even in cultures where red actually carries negative connotations, such as in Burkina Faso, where the color is associated with disease.
The actual behavior of men was also studied in a series of experiments. “I think that is very important,” says the researcher. “We know from social psychology that many factors prevent us from getting to know someone.” Such impediments are shyness, a negative assessment of one’s own attractiveness, or the fear of being rejected. The team therefore addressed the question of whether the red effect draws men to women in red clothing rather than those wearing other colors. The tests revealed: Yes! Again, the scenarios and tasks were different. In one of the experiments, the distance between two chairs, for example, was measured and then used as a behavioral yardstick. The subjects were assigned a seat on which they should sit and another on which the interaction partner would soon be sitting. They could move their own seat to wherever they felt most comfortable. Before entering the room, they were given a picture of their conversation partner. The woman would be wearing either a red or blue t-shirt depending on the group of subjects. As a result, the men who expected meeting a woman in red moved their chair closer to the fictitious woman than those from the control group – on average, about 10 centimeters. A study published just before this research suggested such a result. In this study, male subjects stated what questions they would ask a female in an assumed later conversation. Those who were shown a woman wearing a red top chose more intimate questions than participants in the control group who had seen the same woman in a green top.
The extent to which the color red influences perception, attitude, and behavior also surprised Niesta Kayser and her team. “I did not expect such a clear effect,” she admits. “After all, there are a number of other important social psychological determinants that affect attractiveness.” When asked what she personally takes away from the results, she remains calm. “I do now know the huge impact of the color, but I still dress to feel comfortable,” she says. “I enjoy working with color in general. It enriches life.”
PD Dr. Daniela Niesta Kayser earned her Master in Political Sciences and Social Psychology at Ludwig-Maximilians-Universität München (LMU), where she also completed her doctoral studies in Social Psychology in 2005. After four years as a postdoc at the University of Rochester (USA) and representing the Chair of Social Psychology at LMU, she habilitated in psychology in 2012. Since 2013 she has held various posts at the University of Potsdam.
Karl-Liebknecht-Straße 24–25, 14476 Potsdam
Romantic red? The domain specificity of the color-red effect in the context of affiliation and social status. Cognitive, affective and physiological determinants
Lead: PD Dr. Daniela Niesta Kayser
Partner: Ludwig-Maximilians-Universität München; University of Wuppertal
Duration: October 2014 - June 2017
Funding: German Research Association (DFG)
Text: Petra Görlich