4 Weird (But Wonderful) Ways the Color Red Affects Our Brains

Photo: Getty Images

Photo: Getty Images

You pull that trusty red dress from your closet—the slinky, silky one that gets you a flood of compliments—and you feel sexy. Silly? Or science? More and more, it’s beginning to sound like science.

In the past few years, experts around the globe, from anthropologists to social psychologists, have found some weird—and wonderful—ways that the color red affects our brains.

Here, we zero in on four areas of research that could impact your daily life.

It can make you seem more attractive—or like a threat

While it’s long been known that men see a woman in red as more attractive and desirable (and that women like guys in red, too), recent research published in Personality and Social Psychology Bulletin went a step farther: to see how the hue affects women’s perceptions of each other.

Female participants who looked at photos of ladies wearing red, white, or green rated the women in red as more interested in sex and, in turn, viewed them as a threat. So that could explain why, when you arrive at a party rocking that red dress, even your best friend may cling to her date more tightly.

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But no one’s especially conscious of their reactions, suspects Adam Pazda, a social psychologist at the University of Rochester who conducted the study. “We didn’t test whether women in our study were consciously aware that red was affecting their perception of other women,” he says. “I think it’s probably the case that it’s a very subtle effect.”

If a red dress isn’t your style, consider amping up the blush or bronzer. Having a slightly flushed skin tone may get you more attention, says Ian Stephen, PhD, a senior lecturer in psychology at Macquarie University in Sydney, Australia. “We know from our research that red facial skin, a slightly flushed look, makes you [appear] healthier, more attractive.”

It may bring out the athlete in you

Wear red for your next workout or 5K race, and your performance may get a boost. According to a 2005 study in the journal Nature, sports teams in red win more often than teams in blue. The British researchers found that, across several Olympic sports, red-clad competitors were more likely to claim victories when all other factors were equal.

Golfer Tiger Woods wears red on the final day of tournaments, although there are conflicting reports about whether it’s his ”power” color or a nod to his alma mater, Stanford University.

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It makes sense that red could give us a competitive edge, Stephen says. “Red tends to relay a message of aggression,” he says. That’s true, he says, from the animal kingdom on up.

Some preliminary research from the University of Rochester suggests that red may simply make us feel more energized, Pazda says, perhaps explaining the red-powered victories.

It may help you eat less

Red might function as a stop sign when it comes to food, suggests a 2012 study published in the journal Appetite. Participants taking unrelated questionnaires ate less from red plates than from blue or white plates and drank less from red cups instead of blue ones.

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“In general, the color red is associated with ‘stop’ and ‘danger,'” says lead author Oliver Genschow, Ph.D., a psychologist at Ghent University in Belgium. “It is assumed that seeing red [in plates and cups] activates this association and then guides behavior. This results in avoiding food and drink.”

What’s not known yet is if the effect is long lasting, Genschow says. And he warns that if you think about it too much, it may not work as well.

It may give you an edge at work

Waitresses who wore red got better tips from men (but not women) than those who wore other colors, according to a 2012 study in the Journal of Hospitality & Tourism Research.

Whether that red power advantage could get you more raises, a promotion or a corner office isn’t yet known. Nonetheless, House minority leader Nancy Pelosi and other powerful women in politics have relied on the red power suit for years.

It makes sense, Stephen says. “There is fairly good evidence that how we look affects how people perceive us, and our work,” he says. So, it could follow that wearing red at work makes you look powerful, in control, aggressive—that is, worthy of keeping around, and maybe promoting.

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