Winners wear red

IMAGINE you are an experienced martial arts referee. You are asked to score a number of taekwondo bouts, shown to you on video. In each bout, one combatant is wearing red, the other blue. Would clothing colour make any difference to your impartial, expert judgement? Of course it wouldn’t.


Yet research shows it almost certainly would. Last year, sports psychologists at the University of Münster, Germany, showed video clips of bouts to 42 experienced referees. They then played the same clips again, digitally manipulated so that the clothing colours were swapped round. The result? In close matches, the scoring swapped round too, with red competitors awarded an average of 13 per cent more points than when they were dressed in blue. “If one competitor is strong and the other weak, it won’t change the outcome of the fight,” says Norbert Hagemann, who led the study. “But the closer the levels, the easier it is for the colour to tip the scale.”

This is just the latest piece of research suggesting that exposure to certain colours can have a significant effect on how people think and act. Up to now most of the research has focused on red clothing in sport, but other colours and settings are being investigated too. It is becoming clear that colours can have an important, unappreciated effect on the way your mind works – one that you really ought to know about.

The powerful influence of colour on sporting success was first discovered a few years ago, when evolutionary anthropologists Russell Hill and Robert Barton of Durham University, UK, were looking for some way to test the idea that colours influence human behaviour. The 2004 Athens Olympics were coming up, and it dawned on them that in some Olympic combat sports – boxing, taekwondo, Graeco-Roman wrestling and freestyle wrestling – competitors are randomly assigned a red or blue kit. “We realised that this was a ready-made experiment to study the effects of colour on match outcome,” Barton says.

When they analysed the results they found that shirt colour appeared to influence the result, with nearly 55 per cent of bouts being won by the competitor in red. In closely fought bouts it was 62 per cent. “It should have been roughly 50 per cent red, 50 per cent blue, and this was a statistically significant deviation,” Barton says. “Skill and strength may be the main factors – if you’re rubbish, a red shirt won’t stop you from losing, but when fights were relatively symmetrical, colour tipped the balance.”

Barton says that the differences may be accounted for, to some extent, by a referee’s unconscious preference for red – which he argues is an inherited preference – as seen in the taekwondo experiment. He also believes colour affects the combatants’ mood and behaviour. “There is now good experimental evidence that red stimuli are perceived as dominant and that they cause negative effects on performance in those viewing them,” Barton says. “It is plausible that wearing red also makes individuals feel more confident, although this hasn’t yet been tested.”

Red also appears to exert its influence in team games. Last year, a study of 56 seasons of English soccer, led by Martin Attrill at the University of Plymouth, UK, found that, on average, teams whose first-choice kit was red finished higher in the league and won more home games than teams in other colours – which might go some way to explaining why Liverpool, Manchester United and Arsenal have won 38 out of 63 league titles between them since the second world war.

An unpublished analysis by Hill and Barton of the Euro 2004 soccer finals in Portugal found that teams who had red as the main colour in one of their kits won more often and scored more goals when playing in that strip.

Meanwhile, a group led by Iain Greenlees at the University of Chichester, UK, found that goalkeepers felt more confident about saving penalties from footballers wearing white shirts rather than red.

Clearly the effect of wearing red is strong enough to tip the balance of fights and soccer matches, but where did it originate?

One possibility is that red is simply easier to see than other colours. In common with other primates, humans have a trichromatic visual system which probably evolved to allow us to easily see red (therefore ripe) fruit.

“It is plausible that visibility differences could have some effects,” Barton says, though this would be unlikely to make a difference in hand-to-hand combat. “We checked this explanation in football, predicting that red-shirted football teams would have increased accuracy in passing. But we find no such effect. So visibility doesn’t seem to be the answer.”

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