Motivation and Emotion

, Volume 37, Issue 3, pp 389–401

The influence of red on impression formation in a job application context

Authors

    • Department of PsychologyUniversity of Munich
  • Andrew J. Elliot
    • Department of Clinical and Social Sciences in PsychologyUniversity of Rochester
  • Borah Lee
    • Department of PsychologyUniversity of Munich
  • Stephanie Lichtenfeld
    • Department of PsychologyUniversity of Munich
  • Petra Barchfeld
    • Department of PsychologyUniversity of Munich
  • Reinhard Pekrun
    • Department of PsychologyUniversity of Munich
Original Paper

DOI: 10.1007/s11031-012-9326-1

Cite this article as:
Maier, M.A., Elliot, A.J., Lee, B. et al. Motiv Emot (2013) 37: 389. doi:10.1007/s11031-012-9326-1

Abstract

Recent research has shown that the color red can influence psychological functioning. In the present research we tested the hypothesis that red influences impression formation related to another person’s abilities. We conducted three experiments examining the influence of red on the evaluation of male target persons. In Experiment 1, participants viewing red, relative to green, on the shirt of a person presented on a photograph perceived him to be less intelligent. This effect was strongest in a job application context compared to other contexts. In Experiment 2, focusing solely on the job application context, participants viewing red, relative to blue, on an applicants’ tie perceived him to have less earning and leadership potential. In Experiment 3, participants viewing red, relative to green, on a job applicants’ tie rated him as less likely to be hired, and perceptions of ability and leadership potential mediated this effect. Both the conceptual and applied implications of these findings are discussed.

Keywords

Impression formationAchievementSocial cognitionWork placeColor

Introduction

In the past few years, researchers have become increasingly interested in examining links between color and psychological functioning. This research has focused primarily on the color red, and has documented a number of motivational, cognitive, and behavioral effects of red across different situations and methodologies. Specifically, prior work has examined the impact of red on one’s performance in an achievement context (Elliot et al. 2007; Gnambs et al. 2010; Mehta and Zhu 2009) and on impression formation in a romantic context (Elliot et al. 2010; Elliot and Niesta 2008; Roberts et al. 2010). The possible influence of red on impression formation in achievement situations, such as judgments of another person’s abilities, has been neglected to date. The present research aims to redress this oversight.

Prior research

The impact of color on cognitive performance and impression formation

A central finding from the emerging research on color is that red carries a negative meaning and has negative implications in achievement contexts (i.e., situations in which a person’s competence or ability is evaluated). Specifically, using a modified Stroop task, Moller et al. (2009) found that for males and females alike, red is associated with the danger of failure and low competence (see also Mehta and Zhu 2009). Consequently, in achievement settings this color prompts avoidance motivation and undermines performance on cognitively demanding tasks (Elliot et al. 2007, 2009, 2011; Gnambs et al. 2010; Lichtenfeld et al. 2009; Maier et al. 2008; Mehta and Zhu 2009; Rutchick et al. 2010; Tanaka and Tokuno 2011). In these experiments, red has been placed on or near an impending achievement test and the focus has been on participants’ evaluation of their own competence.

Interestingly, another finding from the emerging research is that red carries a positive meaning and has positive implications when one forms an impression of another person in a romantic dating context on the basis of minimal information (e.g., a picture or brief description). Specifically, red is an indicator of sexual receptivity for men viewing women, red is an indicator of status for women viewing men and, in both instances, red makes members of the opposite sex more attractive and sexually desirable (Elliot et al. 2010; Elliot and Niesta 2008; Guéguen 2012a, b; Guéguen and Jacob 2012a, b; Niesta-Kayser et al. 2010; Pazda et al. 2012; Roberts et al. 2010). Importantly, for both females and males, red only had an effect on traits related to mating qualities, not on perceived general likability, extraversion, agreeableness, or emotional stability, which suggests that red in this kind of context functions as a trait-specific sexual signal. In these experiments, red has been placed on the photo of a target person and the focus has been on heterosexual attraction.

In sum, according to color-in-context theory (Elliot and Maier 2012) it can be stated that red carries specific symbolic meaning depending on the context in which it is presented and depending on the trait that is evaluated. In achievement situations, red is associated with failure and low competence, whereas in situations involving heterosexual attraction, red signals sexual readiness and good genetic quality.

Color and evaluating others’ competence in achievement contexts

In previous research on the color red and impression formation, the focus has been on impression formation involving heterosexual attraction. The influence of red on impression formation when competence is evaluated has been neglected. Thus, an important question raised by the aforementioned lines of research is what happens when red is viewed while evaluating another person’s competence, rather than their mating qualities? In the present research, we attended to this question by having participants view red (or a control color) as they evaluated the intellectual ability and potential of a job applicant, and indicated their likelihood of hiring the applicant.

What, if anything, do we know at present about the influence of red, or any other color, on the evaluation of others’ competence? This issue has received considerable attention in the popular press and on the internet with regard to the job application context. Many “dress for success” books offer recommendations for what colors job applicants should wear to make a positive impression on their potential employers. Molloy (1975, 1977), for example, has suggested that men and women wear dark colored clothing to project an image of power and authority, whereas Harragan (1977) recommended dark and dull clothing for men, but bright colored clothing for women (see also Bixler 1997; Morem 1997). Countless web forums offer advice regarding color and clothing for job applicants. For example, according to the site http://hubpages.com/hub/Best-Colors-To-Wear-For-A-Job-Interview, the color red is a signal of power (e.g., a “power tie”), and when worn in combination with white can convey the impression of “someone who is in charge and organized”. Other sites, however, such as http://ezinearticles.com/?What-Colors-To-Wear-To-A-Job-Interview&id=1090450, offer caution about wearing red, claiming that it increases expectations and emotional arousal in the evaluator and, therefore, is to be avoided (at least in large amounts). The aforementioned sources converge on the belief that color makes an important difference in the job application process, but diverge in the specific opinions offered regarding color. Importantly, these opinions are based solely on intuition and folk wisdom, and have no theoretical or empirical grounding.

Only a few empirical studies have been conducted on color and the evaluation of others’ competence in achievement contexts. None of these studies emerged from a theoretical foundation and none focused strictly on color per se; all were conducted for the practical purpose of determining which type of outfit is best for an aspiring employee or executive to wear.

Forsythe et al. (1985) showed videotapes of females interviewing for a management position, and had participants rate the likelihood of hiring the different interviewees. The “masculinity” of the interviewees’ clothing was manipulated: They either wore (from least to most masculine) a light beige dress, a bright aqua suit with a white blouse, a beige tailored suit with a rust blouse, or a dark navy tailored suit with a white blouse. Results indicated that the interviewee wearing the beige tailored suit with a rust blouse was rated as most likely to be hired. Damhorst and Reed (1986) presented pictures of female job applicants, and had participants rate the applicants on several characteristics, including competence. The lightness/darkness of the color on the applicants’ suit jacket was manipulated (navy blue/light blue, brown/tan, black/white, dark green/light green, maroon/pink, purple/mauve) in concert with the applicants’ facial expression (some were smiling, others were not). The results indicated that male, but not female, participants rated applicants in dark colored jackets as more competent than those wearing light colored jackets. Scherbaum and Shepherd (1987) presented sketches of male and female executives, and had participants rate them on several characteristics, including the likelihood of succeeding in corporate life. The executives were either dressed in dark blue or medium red, and either wore this color on their suit coat and pants or on their pants only. The results indicated that the male executive wearing dark blue on both his suit jacket and pants was viewed as most likely to succeed in corporate life.

Clearly both the designs and results of the extant studies make it difficult to draw any firm conclusions about color. The designs either confound color and some other variable (i.e., clothing feature, facial expression) or present color in an idiosyncratic manner (e.g., a red suit coat). The results are not very informative and, if anything, seem to speak more to the lightness/darkness of color than to hue per se. Furthermore, even if the designs and results of these studies had produced straightforward results, there is a critical methodological problem in each study that must be highlighted. Specifically, in each instance, hue was manipulated without systematically controlling for lightness and chroma. This problem, which, until very recently, plagued nearly all research conducted in the area of color psychology, renders any obtained results suspect (Valdez and Mehrabian 1994; Whitfield and Whiltshire 1990). As such, at present there is essentially no scientific knowledge at hand regarding the influence of red, or any other color, on people’s evaluations of others’ competence in such settings.

Theoretical framework

The present research focuses on the influence of red on the evaluation of individuals in an achievement context. Achievement contexts are defined in the studies presented herein as situations in which evaluation of competence and ability is central. The theoretical foundation for our research is our model of color and psychological functioning (Elliot and Maier 2007), particularly as applied to red (Elliot et al. 2007; Elliot and Niesta 2008), as well as recent research in the person perception literature (Carlston and Mae 2007). In our model, we posit that red is associated with low competence in achievement contexts (Elliot et al. 2007). This red-low competence association is presumed to have developed in competence-relevant situations through classical conditioning, such as teachers’ repeated use of red to mark students’ mistakes. These learned associations may themselves be grounded in our biological heritage. A recent set of experiments has provided direct empirical support for this red-low competence link, and suggested that this association is implicit in nature (Moller et al. 2009).

Research on person perception has shown that objects can carry symbolic meaning, and that this meaning can become associated with a person when the person and object are viewed in close proximity. For example, people wearing glasses are viewed as more intelligent (Manz and Lueck 1968), people smoking a cigar are viewed as more confident (Callison et al. 2002), and people viewed by a flag are perceived as more patriotic (Carlston and Mae 2007). Most closely related to the present research, studies have found that people wearing dark colored clothing are seen as more aggressive (Frank and Gilovich 1988; Peña et al. 2009), and that those wearing red are seen as more attractive (Elliot and Niesta 2008; Guéguen 2012a; Roberts et al. 2010). These associations between objects/colors and people have been shown to form spontaneously and without awareness, and, at least in some instances, appear to represent meaning-specific, rather than valence-general, associations (Carlston and Mae 2007; Elliot and Niesta 2008).

We hypothesize that red is an indicator of low competence in situations where a person’s competence and ability is evaluated. The stronger the situational focus on competence, the stronger this red effect should be. A job application scenario would be an optimal, face-valid situation producing the strongest effects. In the present research, we presented red (or a control color) on the clothing of a job applicant in a photo, and predicted that this would lead evaluators to perceive the applicant as lower in competence. In addition, we predicted that red would lead to a reduced likelihood of hiring the applicant, which would be mediated by lowered competence perceptions. Empirical work has shown that the evaluation of female, relative to male, applicants tends to be more variable and complex, as it is affected by more factors (e.g., cosmetic use, hair color) and tends to be influenced more by workplace stereotypes (Damhorst and Reed 1986; Kyle and Mahler 1996; Motowidlo and Burnett 1995). Accordingly, we focused exclusively on male targets in our research, because this afforded the most straightforward and powerful way to begin testing our predictions.

Overview of the present study

The present research consists of three experiments designed to test the hypothesized red effect. In Experiment 1, we used three different situational conditions emphasizing competence evaluation to a different degree—job application, no additional information, and affiliation—to test a) whether there is a negative effect of red on perceived intelligence, and b) whether the strength of this red effect varies with the situational focus on competence (see Elliot et al. 2009, Exp. 1). We presented a photo of a male wearing a red or a green shirt, with male and female participants evaluating the target person on perceived intelligence. In the job application scenario, male and female participants played the role of a staff manager who evaluates a male applicant’s competence on the basis of a photo of the applicant. In the no additional information condition, participants were told to form an impression of the person without any additional information. In the affiliation context, participants had to evaluate the target person for whether he was a good candidate for a dating website. In all three domains, perceived intelligence was assessed. We expected that red would lead to a decreased perception of intelligence in the job application condition, and expected null or possibly even positive effects in the other, less competence-focused conditions. In Experiment 2 and 3 we focused exclusively on the job application scenario. In Experiment 2, we sought to conceptually replicate and extend Experiment 1 with a different, more job-specific measure of competence. We presented a target male in a red or blue tie and examined whether participants rated the applicant as having less earning and leadership potential. In Experiment 3, we presented the target male in a red or green tie and examined whether participants rated the applicant as less likely to be hired, and whether this effect was mediated by perceived ability and leadership potential. In all experiments, chromatic contrast colors were used, allowing us to systematically control for lightness and chroma in examining the effect of hue.

Experiment 1

In Experiment 1, we examined the influence of the colors red and green on participants’ perceptions of a target male’s intelligence in three different situational conditions—job application, no additional information, and affiliation—to explore the negative effect of red on perceived intelligence and to test whether the strength of this red effect varies with the situational focus on competence.

Method

Participants

One-hundred and eight (82 female) undergraduates at a university in Germany participated voluntarily. Participation in this and all subsequent experiments was restricted to individuals who did not have an experiment-relevant color deficiency. The mean age of participants was 24.4 years (SD = 4.03). All participants were Caucasian.

Design, procedure, and materials

Participants were randomly assigned to one of two between-subjects color conditions (red vs. green) and one of three between-subjects context conditions (job application vs. no additional information vs. affiliation) in a fully crossed design, with n = 18 participants in each of the six cells. The experimenters in this and all subsequent experiments were unaware of participants’ condition and remained unaware of the hypotheses being tested throughout data collection.

On arrival for the experiment, participants were informed that their task was to evaluate a target person. To manipulate context, participants were given a sheet of paper containing a short written paragraph describing the context. The experimenter remained blind to context condition by turning away from participants as they received and read the paragraph. In the job application condition, the participant was told that the target person was applying for a low to mid-level leadership position, and the evaluator played the role of an authority figure with full hiring power. Participants were instructed to imagine being a Staff Manager in a large computer company. A new product was slated for development and a Team Leader was needed to direct a group of ten people through the product development process. A brief description of the activities required in the job was provided (overseeing the work of the team, being responsible for creative product development, working effectively in a quickly changing environment), and the need to select someone who would be a successful leader was emphasized at the end of the job description. In the no additional information condition, the participant was simply told that their task was to form an impression of a person. In the affiliation condition, participants were instructed to imagine being a test-rater for a company that runs a dating website. A new user submitted his photo and the company wanted to know what impression this person made to the test-raters. The target person was described as somebody who was looking for a dating partner through the dating homepage. A brief description of the dating company’s main goals was presented emphasizing that this company was looking for interesting dating partners with a strong personality.

After providing information about the context, a folder was placed on the desk in front of the participant; the folder contained a photo of a male wearing a red or green shirt. Participants were instructed to open the folder and look at the picture for 5 s (see also Elliot and Niesta 2008). The experimenter remained blind to color condition by turning away from participants as they viewed the picture. When 5 s had elapsed, participants were told to turn the picture over and complete the questionnaire that had been placed underneath it. The questionnaire contained a perceived intelligence measure, several demographics items, an item asking participants to guess the purpose of the experiment (to test awareness of the hypothesis), and an item asking whether participants remembered the color of the shirt. Once participants completed the questionnaire, they were debriefed and dismissed.

The male photo was a 7″ × 9″ head and upper chest shot of a young Caucasian man wearing a T-shirt. For the experiment, the photo was centered on an 8.5″ × 11″ page. Adobe Photoshop was used to put red or green on the man’s shirt (see Fig. 1a). A GreytagMacBeth Eye-One Pro spectrophotometer was used to select standard red and green colors that were equivalent on lightness and chroma when printed. The parameters for red were LCh (45.3, 45.7, 24.0) and for green were LCh (44.8, 45.2, 153.0).
https://static-content.springer.com/image/art%3A10.1007%2Fs11031-012-9326-1/MediaObjects/11031_2012_9326_Fig1_HTML.jpg
Fig. 1

a The color manipulation used in Experiment 1. b The color manipulation used in Experiment 2

Measures

Perceived intelligence

Skowronski et al. (1993) single-item measure was revised slightly to assess perceived intelligence (“How intelligent do you think this person is?”). Participants completed the measure on a 1 (not at all) to 9 (extremely) scale.

Color awareness probe

Participants were asked to guess the hypothesis being tested in the experiment (“What do you think the purpose of the study was?”). A correct guess was defined as any mention of color and any mention of the dependent measure in the experiment.

Results and discussion

None of the participants correctly guessed the purpose of the experiment. We used analysis of variance (ANOVA) to examine the effect of color, context and their interaction on the dependent measure. The analysis revealed a main effect of color condition, F(1, 102) = 8.21 (MSE = 1.63), p = .010, d = .55. Participants in the red condition evaluated the target person as less intelligent (M = 5.56, SD = 1.33) than those in the green condition (M = 6.26, SD = 1.22). Neither the main effect of context nor, surprisingly, the interaction of color and context was significant, all Fs < 1.3.

In ancillary analyses of the data, we conducted an additional contrast to test for a linear trend in the data (see Abelson and Prentice 1997; Rosenthal and Rosnow 1985). The mean scores for perceived intelligence across the six cells indicated that the strength of the red effect decreased across context conditions: The job application situation displayed the strongest red effect; within the no information condition, a weak negative trend was observed and in the affiliation condition this trend was weaker still. No such linear trend was present in the green condition. The centered contrast weights that match this trend are wi {−3[red-job application], −2 [red-minimal information], −1 [red-affiliation], 2 [green-job application], 2 [green-no information], 2 [green-affiliation]}. This contrast analysis revealed a significant effect, t(102) = 2.61, p = .010, supporting the linear trend in the data in the red condition. This significant effect indicates that, in addition to the main effect of color, the size of this effect depended on the degree to which competence evaluation was emphasized.

In sum, the results from this experiment indicated that participants who viewed a male target person on a photo with a red, relative to a green shirt, perceived the person to be less intelligent, and this was especially so in the job interview condition. Participants were unaware of the purpose of the experiment.

Experiment 2

In Experiment 2, we sought to conceptually replicate the results of the first experiment while implementing several changes to the procedure. In this study, we focused exclusively on the job application scenario. We used a different male target person and placed the color manipulation on the applicant’s tie, rather than his shirt. In addition, we used blue, rather than green as the contrast color. Finally, we shifted our indicator of perceived competence from perceptions of intelligence, which reflects an evaluation of actual competence, to perceptions of earning and leadership potential, reflecting potential future competence.

Method

Participants

Thirty-seven (24 female) undergraduates at a Northeastern university in the US participated voluntarily. The mean age of participants was 20.1 years (SD = 2.44). Participant ethnicity was as follows: 3 African American, 9 Asian, 22 Caucasian, 2 Hispanic, and 1 unspecified.

Design, procedure, and materials

Participants were randomly assigned to one of two between-subjects color conditions: the red condition (n = 18) or the blue condition (n = 19). Instructions for participants and presentation of the experimental materials were the same as in our prior experiment, but several changes were implemented regarding the materials themselves and the dependent measures. As noted above, a different male was used in the target photo, red and blue were used in the color manipulation, color was manipulated by varying the color of the applicant’s tie, and participants reported their perceptions of the applicant’s earning and leadership potential (thus focusing on future outcomes).

The male photo was a 7″ × 9″ head and torso shot of a young Caucasian man wearing a shirt and tie. For the experiment, the photo was centered on an 8.5″ × 11″ page. Adobe Photoshop was used to put red or blue on the man’s tie, and the colors were selected using the CIELCh color model (see Fig. 1b). A GreytagMacBeth Eye-One Pro spectrophotometer was used to select red and blue colors that were equivalent on lightness and chroma when printed. The parameters for red were LCh(44.1, 38.9, 21.6) and for blue were LCh(44.2, 38.7, 265.6).

Measures

Earnings and leadership potential

Toro-Morn and Sprecher’s (2003) single-item measure was used to assess perceptions of earning potential (“I think that this person has a high earning potential.”). Participants completed the measure on a 1 (not at all) to 9 (very much) scale. Damhorst and Reed’s (1986) single-item measure was used to assess perceptions of leadership potential (“How good do you think this person would be as a team leader?”). Participants responded on a 1 (not at all) to 7 (very much) scale.

Color memorability and awareness probe

Participants were given the same color memorability question and awareness probe used in Experiment 1.

Results and discussion

None of the participants correctly guessed the purpose of the experiment. We used independent samples t tests to examine the effect of color condition (red vs. blue) on the dependent measures. The analysis on earning potential revealed an effect of color condition, t(35) = −2.15, p = .038, d = 0.71. Participants in the red condition thought that the applicant had less earning potential (M = 4.33, SD = 1.24) than those in the blue condition (M = 5.11, SD = 0.94). The analysis on leadership potential also revealed an effect of color condition, t(35) = −2.05, p = .047, d = 0.67. Participants in the red condition thought that the applicant had less leadership potential (M = 5.28, SD = 1.99) than those in the blue condition (M = 6.42, SD = 1.35). In sum, the results from this experiment supported our hypotheses. Participants who viewed a job applicant in a red, relative to a blue, tie perceived the applicant as having less earning and leadership potential. Participants were unaware of the purpose of the experiment.

Experiment 3

In Experiment 3, we sought to conceptually replicate and extend the results of the prior experiments. We placed red on the tie of the target male from Experiment 2, but shifted the control color from blue to green. In addition, we examined the influence of red, relative to green, on the likelihood of hiring the applicant, and tested perceived ability (actual competence) and leadership potential (potential future competence) as mediator variables. Finally, we assessed perceptions of the applicant’s general likeability in order to test the specificity of the observed effects.

Method

Participants

Thirty-seven (20 female) undergraduates at a Northeastern university in the US participated voluntarily. The mean age of participants was 22.0 years (SD = 5.40). Participant ethnicity was as follows: 5 African American, 15 Asian, 10 Caucasian, 6 Hispanic, and 1 unspecified.

Design, procedure, and materials

Participants were randomly assigned to one of two between-subjects color conditions: the red condition (n = 19) or the green condition (n = 18) condition. The procedure was the same as that used in the prior experiments, but the set of dependent measures was expanded to include both mediator and outcome variables. A GretagMacBeth Eye-One Pro spectrophotometer was used to select red and green colors that were equivalent on lightness and chroma when printed. The parameters for red were LCh(47.1, 45.7, 31.5) and for green were LCh(47.1, 46.1, 157.3).

Measures

Perceived ability and leadership potential

Law et al. (2012) four-item measure was used to assess perceived ability (e.g. “I think he does well at most things he tries”, Cronbach’s α = .92). Damhorst and Reed’s (1986) single-item measure used in Experiment 2 was used to assess perceptions of leadership potential.

Hiring likelihood

Forsythe et al.’s (1985) single-item measure was used to assess hiring likelihood (“How likely are you to hire this person?”). Participants completed the measure on a 1 (not at all) to 7 (very much) scale.

General likability

Jones et al. (2004) single-item measure was revised slightly and used to assess general likability (“I think he’s a nice guy”). Participants completed the measure on a 1 (not at all) to 9 (very much) scale.

Color memorability and awareness probe

Participants were given the same color memorability question and awareness probe used in the prior experiments.

Results and discussion

One participant correctly guessed the purpose of the experiment; this person was removed from the data set. First, we used a series of independent samples t-tests to test for the direct effect of color on the dependent variables: perceived ability, leadership potential, and hiring likelihood. Next, using a multiple regression analysis, we tested whether perceived ability mediated the effect of color on hiring likelihood. Finally, the same mediation analysis with color and hiring likelihood was performed to test the mediating role of leadership potential. This procedure is known as the measurement-of-mediation approach (Baron and Kenny 1986; Spencer et al. 2005). Three sets of analyses are used to examine mediation in this approach: one to test the direct effect of the independent variable on the dependent variable, a second to test the effect of the independent variable on the proposed mediator, and a third to test the relation between the mediator variable and the dependent variable, and to examine the drop in the direct effect when the mediator variable is considered (Baron and Kenny 1986; MacKinnon 2008).

First, to test the direct effect of color on the dependent variables we performed three independent samples t-tests to examine color effects (red vs. green) on perceived ability, leadership potential, and hiring likelihood. The perceived ability analysis revealed an effect of color condition, t(34) = −2.00, p = .054, d = 0.67 (β = −0.32), indicating that participants in the red condition perceived the applicant as being lower in ability (M = 5.25, SD = 1.52) than those in the green condition (M = 6.10, SD = 0.96). The leadership potential analysis revealed an effect of color condition, t(34) = −2.16, p = .038, d = 0.72 (β = −0.35), indicating that participants in the red condition perceived the applicant as having less leadership potential (M = 4.11, SD = 1.08) than those in the green condition (M = 4.83, SD = 0.92). Next the effect of color on hiring likelihood was tested. The analysis revealed an effect of color condition, t(34) = −2.04, p = .049, d = 0.68 (β = −0.33), indicating that participants in the red condition were less likely to hire the applicant (M = 4.11, SD = 1.18) than those in the green condition (M = 4.83, SD = 0.92).

Testing mediation for the color and hiring likelihood link

To test the meditational role of perceived ability, we regressed hiring likelihood on color condition with perceived ability also in the equation. The analysis revealed that perceived ability was a significant positive predictor of hiring likelihood, t(33) = 4.50, p < .001 (β = 0.62). Participants who perceived the applicant as being lower in ability were less likely to hire him. Including perceived ability in the equation reduced the β for the direct effect of color condition on hiring likelihood from −0.33 to −0.13 (p = .35), an 84.5% decrease in variance accounted for (see Fig. 2a). We used MacKinnon et al. (2007) PRODCLIN program to generate 95% confidence intervals for the mediated effect with a percentile bootstrapping procedure. The lower (0.016) and upper (0.951) limits that were obtained did not include 0, further validating the indirect influence of color condition on hiring likelihood via perceived ability.1
https://static-content.springer.com/image/art%3A10.1007%2Fs11031-012-9326-1/MediaObjects/11031_2012_9326_Fig2_HTML.gif
Fig. 2

a The effect of color on hiring likelihood mediated by perceived ability in Experiment 3. The value in parentheses is from the analysis of the effect with perceived ability in the equation. b The effect of color on hiring likelihood mediated by leadership potential in Experiment 3. The value in parentheses is from the analysis of the effect with leadership potential in the equation. The values in both figures represent standardized regression coefficients from the regression analyses

Finally, to test the meditational role of leadership potential, we regressed hiring likelihood on color condition with leadership potential also in the equation. The analysis revealed that leadership potential was a significant positive predictor of hiring likelihood, t(33) = 7.18, p < .001 (β = 0.79). Those who rated the applicant as having lower leadership potential were less likely to hire him. Including leadership potential in the equation reduced the β for the direct effect of color condition on hiring likelihood from −0.33 to −0.06 (p = .60), a 96.7% decrease in variance accounted for (see Fig. 2b). The percentile bootstrapping procedure further validated the meditational role of leadership potential by demonstrating that the 95% confidence interval for the indirect effect did not include zero (lower limit = 0.049, upper limit = 1.210).2

General likability

To test the specificity of the red effect, we conducted an independent samples t-test examining the effect of color condition (red vs. green) on general likability. The analysis revealed a null effect of color condition (t < 1). We then proceeded to repeat each of the analyses reported above with general likability included in the equation. In each instance, the significant effects reported in the initial analysis remained significant, indicating that the observed effects were independent of general likability. Although according to many models of impression formation that rely on the so called ‘halo’ error (Thorndike 1920), a positive relation between competence rating and likability could be expected (see e.g., Asch 1946; Anderson 1965; Fishbein and Ajzen 1975; Srull and Wyer 1989), for competence and warmth specifically, this halo effect may not always emerge. Recent research by Judd et al. (2005) and Kervyn et al. (2009) found a compensatory link between the social categories competence and warmth, showing increased warmth evaluations when competence ratings decreased (and vice versa). It remains an open question as to whether our results were influenced by this type of compensatory effect.

In sum, the results from this experiment supported our hypotheses. Participants who viewed a job applicant in a red, relative to a green, tie rated the applicant as less likely to be hired, and perceptions of both actual ability and potential competence were shown to mediate this effect.

General discussion

The three experiments of the present research provided consistent support for our hypotheses. In Experiment 1, male and female participants viewed a picture of a male in a job application, limited information, or affiliation context, and rated him on perceived intelligence. In Experiments 2 to 3, they viewed a picture of a male in a job application context and rated him on competence (Experiment 2) and hireability (Experiment 3). Across the three experiments, those who viewed red (relative to a control color) on the applicant perceived him to be less intelligent and able, to have less earning potential, and to have less leadership potential (this was particularly the case in a job application context). Participants also indicated that they would be less likely to hire him, and perceptions of competence were shown to mediate the link between red and hiring likelihood. These findings were observed with two different types of color presentation (on the applicant’s shirt and on his tie), with two different control colors, with two different target applicants, and with three different indicators of perceived competence (encompassing both present and potential competence).

Our data are provocative in showing that red is not just about aesthetics in a job application context, but also carries situated meaning and has implications for perception and judgment. As such, red is similar to other non-verbal cues (e.g., body type, personal grooming, age, attractiveness; Cash 1985; Perry and Bourhis 1998; Rudolph et al. 2009; Russell et al. 1990) and behaviors (e.g., firmness of handshake, interpersonal distance, expressed affect, eye contact; DeGroot and Motowidlo 1999; Imada and Hakel 1977; Parsons and Liden 1984; Stewart et al. 2008) in that it functions as a subtle, seemingly innocuous stimulus that nevertheless exerts an important influence on applicant evaluation and hiring likelihood. Critically, we documented this influence of red while controlling for the other non-hue properties of color. This allowed us to establish the red effect in a systematic and controlled manner, unconfounded by lightness, chroma, or, for that matter, any other variables (for examples of confounded studies involving color, see Damhorst and Reed 1986; Forsythe et al. 1985).

As noted in our introduction, a number of different lay hypotheses have been offered with regard to color, and with regard to red clothing in particular, in job application contexts. Perhaps the most prevalent of these intuitive hypotheses is that red is a symbol of power and status, especially when displayed on an individual’s tie (i.e., the “power tie”). Although the red status link has been documented for heterosexual females observing pictures of men in a dating context (Elliot et al. 2010), our findings suggest that in hiring situations red serves as an indicator of low competence, rather than high power/status, for both for male and female observers.

It is important to note, however, that our findings do not necessarily rule out a red-power or red-status link in hiring situations per se. Rather, they highlight the context-specific nature of the meaning of the color red across situations (see also Maier et al. 2009), and it is possible that red can carry the meaning of either low competence or high power/status even within job application contexts, with the specific details of the situation dictating which meaning is predominant and drives perception and judgment (for an analog involving context effects in attitude formation, see Barden et al. 2004). In the present work, the target person was applying for a low to mid-level leadership position, and the evaluator played the role of an authority figure with full hiring power. It is possible that in a scenario in which the applicant is higher in status (e.g., is applying for a high-level leadership position) and the evaluator is lower in status (e.g., provides an evaluative recommendation, but has no hiring authority per se), red may signal power/status, rather than low competence, and have positive implications for perceived competence and hiring likelihood. Stated conceptually, the relative status of the evaluator and applicant may moderate the red effect documented herein, and it would be desirable to put this possibility to empirical test in subsequent work.

The notion of context-specific variation in the meaning of the color red does not easily fit intuitive thinking about the associative meaning of colors, but it is fully in line with recent theorizing about conceptual memory (see Barsalou 2009) and attitude formation (see Gawronski and Bodenhausen 2006, 2007). According to Barsalou (2003, 2009), semantic categories, including color properties, are dynamic representations and can be understood as situated conceptualizations that promote interactions with the represented stimulus in different situations. For example, the concept bicycle can evoke situated conceptualizations that highlight different aspects of interacting with a bicycle, such as riding or repairing, and thus promote different types of bicycle-relevant processing in different situations. According to this view, a semantic concept is not represented as a single generic representation of a category in memory, but involves the situated generation of a wide variety of conceptualizations that support behavior in specific contexts (Barsalou 2009).

Similarily, Gawronski and Bodenhausen (2006), focusing on affective evaluations of attitude objects, postulate in their Associative-Propositional Evaluation (APE) Model the existence of multiple affective reactions linked to the same stimulus representations that can be of opposite affective valence. They argue that the activation of these associations not only depends on the preexisting structure of associations in memory, but also on the particular set of input stimuli being activated in a given situation. A particular event will only activate a limited subset of all associations available in memory; that is, the specific configuration of input stimuli in a given situation determines the specific associative meaning of a stimulus representation. With regard to evaluative responses: “…one and the same object may activate different associative patterns, and thus different affective reactions, depending on the particular context in which the object is encountered (Gawronski and Bodenhausen 2007, p. 701)”. For example the concept “dentist” in relation to the context “to drill” might be associated with negative emotional reactions whereas “dentist” in the context of “husband” or “getting married” might produce an opposite affective response (see Ferguson and Bargh 2008). With regard to the color red, we argue that the specific information provided by a situation (e.g., romance or evaluation of competence) activates the corresponding subset of input representations, focusing the situated meaning of red either on positive mating qualities or on associations of failure and low competence. Context- specific changes in the associative meaning of red has not been tested directly in the research presented herein; our primary goal was to first establish a postulated effect empirically. In future research, we intend to explore the associative nature of the proposed effects and their context-specific variations.

Our research focused primarily on the evaluation of male job applicants, and a high priority for subsequent work is to determine whether red has the same influence on the evaluation of female applicants. Gender differences have not usually emerged to date in empirical work on the meaning and implications of red in achievement contexts (e.g., Maier et al. 2008; Mehta and Zhu 2009; Moller et al. 2009; cf. Gnambs et al. 2010), and we see no reason to suspect that they would emerge in the context of applicant evaluation. Research has shown that women often encounter workplace bias and stereotyping that leads to lower perceptions of competence relative to equally qualified men (Arvey 1979; Davison and Burke 2000; Hitt and Barr 1989). Red has not only been posited to carry specific meaning, but also to exacerbate initial tendencies (see Elliot and Niesta 2008), and if this is the case in the job application context, red may actually have particularly inimical implications when viewed on or near female applicants. We await follow-up work on this intriguing possibility and on the gender question more generally.

General implications for the functions of color in competence evaluation

It is not only important to consider the general versus specific nature of our findings in job application contexts, but also to consider the extent to which our findings apply to achievement contexts more broadly, and to competence evaluation per se. With regard to the broader swath of achievement contexts, an issue worthy of exploration is whether the type of competence or task under consideration affects the meaning and influence of red. In the present work, intellectual competence was the focus, and the task involved mental skills and abilities. We suspect that in most instances such as this, in which abstract intelligence and ability are focal, red takes on the meaning of failure and leads to lower perceptions of competence. However, it is possible that when physical competence is the focus or the task requires brute strength or aggressiveness, red may take on the meaning of power or dominance, leading to positive perceptions of competence. Of course, whether low/high perceptions of competence are desirable or undesirable depends on whether red is viewed on or near a fellow (or potential) employee/teammate or is viewed on or near a competitor (Feltman and Elliot 2011; Hill and Barton 2005).

Limitations, suggestions for future research, and implications for practice

The participant evaluators in our research were undergraduates provided with limited information in a highly controlled laboratory setting. These features afforded excellent experimental control that enabled us to conduct a sensitive test of the red effect, but this control also left open questions regarding ecological validity and real-world applicability. The central question at hand is whether red has such a strong effect (or any effect at all) on real-world evaluations and decisions when seen in conjunction with the many other verbal and non-verbal cues present in an interview environment, in addition to information regarding the education, training, and experience of the applicant (for related points regarding other non-focal cues, see Bauer and Baltes 2002; Davison and Burke 2000; Morgeson et al. 2008).

On one hand, it is possible that the red effect is constrained to situations in which minimal or static information is available or, more pessimistically, to situations in which evaluations and decisions are of no actual consequence. On the other hand, however, considerable empirical evidence attests to individuals’ tendency to form initial impressions on the basis of minimalist, “thin slices” of information (Ambady et al. 2000; Carney et al. 2007), and on the surprisingly powerful influence of first impressions on subsequent perception and behavior. That is, evaluators who view red on or near a job applicant may perceive the applicant as lower in competence, and this initial impression may lead evaluators in an actual interview environment to interpret ambiguous information as relevant to incompetence (see Darley and Gross 1983; Nickerson 1998), frame questions in a manner designed to detect incompetence (see Kunda et al. 1993; Trope and Bassok 1982), and evoke behavior from the applicant that fulfills expectations of incompetence (see Curtis and Miller 1986; Snyder et al. 1977). Subsequent work is needed to shed light on this important question.

We believe the present research is the first to use rigorous (i.e., unconfounded) scientific procedures to establish a link between color and the evaluation of job applicants. However, we also want to clearly state that we view our research as a first step, rather than a final word. Now that the red effect has been documented, considerable follow-up research is needed to determine the precise nature (e.g., boundary conditions, moderators, breadth of applicability) of the effect. In this regard, a parallel may be drawn between our research and that of Frank and Gilovich (1988) on lightness and aggression in sport contexts. In a series of studies, including rigorously controlled experiments, Frank and Gilovich (1988) demonstrated that individuals wearing dark, relative to light, jerseys are perceived as more aggressive. These investigators highlighted the novelty and provocativeness of the observed effect, but also went to considerable lengths to acknowledge that the dark-aggression link is not applicable in any and all instances, and to note that considerable additional research was needed before the precise nature of the effect could be determined. Subsequent work has confirmed the veracity of their finding and extended it to interesting new areas (Meier et al. 2004; Peña et al. 2009; Sherman and Clore 2009; Vrij 1997; Vrij et al. 2005), but has also identified limiting conditions (Mills and French 1996; Nickels 2008; Tiryaki 2005). We anticipate (and, indeed, hope) the same for the red effect documented herein.

The present research has clear, practical implications for individuals seeking employment. On the basis of our findings, job applicants would do well to avoid displaying red on their application photo or wearing red to a job interview. Additional research is needed before definitive statements can be made in this regard, but for now, it seems safest for males to keep their red “power tie” in the closet, and for females to likewise be cautious about the use of red attire. Employers may also benefit from knowledge of our findings. Effective hiring practices require knowing which information about prospective employees is linked to successful performance and which is superfluous. Some subtle cues such as firmness of handshake are, surprisingly, associated with characteristics (extraversion in this instance; Stewart et al. 2008) that predict positive performance outcomes (Barrick and Mount 1991; Huffcutt et al. 2001), but until otherwise documented, it seems best to assume that red (and color in general) has little predictive utility in this regard. As such, those evaluating applicants would do well to monitor for and guard against the potential influence of red in their judgments and decision making.

Footnotes
1

In addition a Sobel test of mediation was performed and revealed the following: Z = 1.84, p = .07.

 
2

In addition a Sobel test of mediation was performed and revealed the following: Z = 2.05, p = .04.

 

Acknowledgments

This research was supported by a TransCoop Grant from the Alexander-von-Humboldt Foundation awarded to Andrew J. Elliot, Reinhard Pekrun, and Markus A. Maier, and by a Grant awarded to Andrew J. Elliot and Reinhard Pekrun from the University of Munich within the third funding line of the German Excellence Initiative.

Copyright information

© Springer Science+Business Media New York 2012