You’ve almost certainly got some red clothes somewhere in your wardrobe. And why not? It’s a lovely colour: bright, striking, attention grabbing; what’s more, it looks awesome on you. But there’s a large body of research that suggests when we wear red we send out very specific messages, consciously or not, to the opposite sex. And that means you need to think twice before pulling on a red outfit and heading into the office; it’s almost certainly not a good idea.
Red means danger! And probably sex too!
Red is associated with excitable outcomes in many aspects of life; a wide range of plants and animals will paint themselves scarlet in order to create a sense of danger or to discourage predators from eating them. The sexual connotations are well-researched too; the roses you buy your lover are red, forbidden things happen in red light districts, and macaque monkeys have bright red bottoms to better draw attention to the regions of their body more useful in mating.
All of this, biologists have found, serves to send out easily understood messages to the relevant audiences, scaring / arousing or deterring the target as intended.
Unsurprisingly, psychologists have repeatedly confirmed that when humans – female ones, at least – wear red the effect is similar. There are a whole host of ingenious studies undertaken by researchers that all basically demonstrate that we are no different to macaques when it comes to being turned on by someone in red.
You will get much more success with your online dating profile if you wear red in your photo, for starters. Waitresses who wear red receive bigger tips, and men are more likely to offer female hitchhikers a ride if they are in crimson. Women are more likely to wear red or pink clothes when in the fertile phase of their menstrual cycle, a time the researchers noted, when they are (subconsciously, at least) “especially motivated to attract highly desirable sexual partners[i]”
Men and women and red clothes
The colour red affects us in all sorts of ways. Daniela Niester and colleagues conducted a study[ii] with male students that involved showing them photos of women in a red dress and a blue dress, and discovered that when asked to choose from a list of questions they’d like to ask, the men were far more likely to ask more intimate questions (“how could a guy get your attention in a bar”) of the women in red, while they opted for more mundane conversation starters for the lady in green, such as asking where she was from.
In a related study they found that when asked to arrange a room for a meeting with a woman whose photo they had seen, the men moved the chairs closer together when they expected to meet someone dressed in red.
Women are, at least on some level of consciousness, aware of the potency of the colour red on the opposite sex. One researcher found that they can be less likely to introduce a pretty friend to their boyfriend if she was wearing red than if she was wearing green, and Niester and her team proved this effect in a fun study conducted in Germany.
They invited 79 women to participate in a research exercise at Ludwig-Maximilians-University in Munich, Germany, and as part of the prep work they emailed out some basic instructions (where to turn up, how long it would be and so on), along with a brief (fake) bio and photo of the researcher who would be conducting the experiment.
They used two different photos for the imaginary researcher, and chose them by getting 20 students at the university to flick through a bunch of photos of random men and rate them on a scale of 1-9 for handsomeness and attractiveness. Half the women invited to the study were sent a photo of one of the most handsome, while the other half were told that one of the least attractive researchers would be working with them.
On arrival, the women were told that the researcher who they’d been booked to work with was unavailable so the study would have to be postponed. It wasn’t, of course, because the team had discretely noted what colour clothes the participants had chosen to wear.
You can probably guess what they found. The women who had turned up ready for a vigorous bout of researching with the dashingly handsome academic were three times more likely to be wearing red than those who had been invited along by his less gorgeous colleague.
What this means for your work outfit
All of the above is interesting research, but what does it mean for you tomorrow morning when you’re staring at your wardrobe trying to choose between the red and the purple blouse? Several things.
Firstly, if you’re a man then you can most likely wear red with impunity. There’s no evidence that it sends out the same signals as when women wear it. Donald Trump’s fondness for red ties, it seems, is relatively straightforward.
For women though, it is more complicated. As we’ve seen, there are some potential benefits to wearing red; in your Tinder profile pic, for example, or if you’re hitchhiking. So red clothes could be seen as a way to attract attention and favourable behaviour from colleagues – and that is often a good thing.
But if that’s your reasoning, then consider why they might be giving you extra attention. As the science shows, it’s probably not for the right reasons. Men are somewhat programmed to see the colour red in sexual terms, and can respond – at least subconsciously – accordingly. That’s most likely not the sort of attention you’re looking for.
You might well figure that this is unlikely to spill over into something inappropriate or harmful, and you may be right. Perhaps your red outfit attracts initial (vaguely sexual) attention that then leads to more awareness of the awesome job you’re doing.
That’s a better outcome, but also full of downside. What if the men in your office have read the same research as you? You turn up wearing red, and it’s possible that someone concludes that you’re menstruating. It’s not difficult to see how that could lead your more backwards colleagues to behave in idiot ways around you.
Or maybe that co-worker who always makes the borderline inappropriate remarks decides you chose that colour because the two of you have a meeting today, and you want to send a subconscious signal to him that you fancy him.
You might think this is over-complicating things – it’s just a red dress, after all – and you might be right. But before you put that dress on, you need to know that a big chunk of men you meet are going to be making certain assumptions, consciously or not, about why you chose to wear it. And if you’re in the office at the time, those assumptions are probably not the kind that you want.
[i] Strategic Sexual Signals: Women’s Display versus Avoidance of the Color Red Depends on the Attractiveness of an Anticipated Interaction Partner; Kayser, Daniela Niesta; Agthe, Maria; Maner, Jon K. PLoS One
[ii] Niesta Kayser D, Elliot AJ, Feltman R (2010) Red and romantic behavior in men viewing women. European Journal of Social Psychology 40: 901–908.