Red Makes You Sexy, Dumb, Attractive, and RepellentS

A recent study says guys think women who wear red are up for sex — but this is just the latest in a long string of findings (and stereotypes) about red. Let's break down the color's decidedly mixed reputation.

According to ScienceNow (via Wired), researchers showed 25 guys a photo of a woman, who'd been Photoshopped to wear either a red or a white t-shirt. They asked the men to rate, on a scale of 1 to 9, how interested the woman seemed to be in sex. When she was wearing red, they rated her 1 to 1.5 points higher on the DTF scale. This could be biological (baboon butts, etc), or it could be cultural (sexy underwear, for instance, is often red), but study author Adam Pazda says his research shows that "wearing red may be a double-edged sword" because women "may be getting sexual attention they don't want." Uh, you don't have to wear red to get that — but Pazda's right that being seen as sexually available is only a good thing if you actually are. So let's put this study in the "neutral" category for now — and look at some more pro-red research:

The Good

  • In 2008, researchers Andrew Elliot and Daniela Niesta reported that "red, relative to other achromatic and chromatic colors, leads men to view women as more attractive and more sexually desirable. Men seem unaware of this red effect, and red does not influence women's perceptions of the attractiveness of other women, nor men's perceptions of women's overall likeability, kindness, or intelligence." So wearing red won't make men think you're nice, but it will make them think you're hot.
  • A 2010 study by Elliot, Nesta, and colleagues found that wearing red works for guys too. Women found dudes in red more attractive than ones wearing other colors. The effect even worked for guys just photographed on red backgrounds, which means carrying around a giant red backdrop to stand in front of is totally a viable mating strategy.
  • In 2011, Elliot and his team found that seeing red temporarily made people's reactions quicker and more foreceful. He said, "Red enhances our physical reactions because it is seen as a danger cue. Humans flush when they are angry or preparing for attack. People are acutely aware of such reddening in others and it's implications."
  • In 2009, researchers Juliet Zhu and Ravi Mehta found that red could boost people's memories — said Zhu, "If you're talking about wanting enhanced memory for something like proofreading skills, then a red color should be used."

But it's not all good news — sometimes red fucks shit up:

The Bad

  • Elliot (who apparently is really cornering the Red Studies market) and colleagues found in 2007 that red could make people dumber. Specifically, seeing the color right before an IQ test made subjects score lower. Maybe because it's often the color of a big fat F?
  • In his reaction-time study, Elliot also found that red can be related to "worry, task distraction, and self-preoccupation, all of which have been shown to tax mental resources," perhaps because of its association with danger. So red makes you a stressed-out narcissist? Awesome.
  • Man Repeller and countless other sources of beauty and dating advice have warned ladies away from red lipstick, claiming guys hate it. However, a 2010 study found that men spent more time staring at red-painted lips than at any other feature (or at paint-free mouths) — the study author opined that this meant guys actually like red lipstick a lot.

Some of the above research was conducted on cross-cultural samples, but not all of it — and since red has different implications in different places, what spells "danger" in the US might not do so in China. Nonetheless, red has a lot of biological associations, from blood to blushing to poisonous berries to those sexy, sexy baboon asses. It's not surprising that it's developed links with sex and death, at least in our culture. For those looking for sartorial advice, the picture isn't completely rosy (sorry) — a red dress might make you look sexy and available, but it could also make your would-be admirers stupid and self-absorbed. Comfort yourself, though, with the knowledge that these effects are probably both minimal and short-lived — once you take your clothes off, you'll probably both be back to normal.

The Red-Dress Effect [ScienceNow, via Wired]