Prior research has shown that for women viewing men, perceiving the color red can enhance attractiveness judgments in some contexts. Additionally, an association exists between the processing of color words and the perception of color stimuli. The present studies examined whether processing the word red would lead to similar psychological effects of perceiving color stimuli. Specifically, we tested whether reading a description of a man wearing a red shirt (relative to other colors) can enhance women’s perceptions of the man’s attractiveness. Experiments 1, 2, and 3 provided support for this effect for red-gray and red-green contrasts. The findings are discussed with regard to grounded theories of cognition, which suggest that knowledge about color and experience of perceiving color are integrated in a multimodal fashion. Practical implications of the red effect for interpersonal perception and interaction are discussed along with general implications in the domain of color psychology.
This is a preview of subscription content, access via your institution.
Buy single article
Instant access to the full article PDF.
Price excludes VAT (USA)
Tax calculation will be finalised during checkout.
Ancillary analyses testing whether sexual orientation (heterosexual vs. bisexual) interacted with the focal variables failed to yield any significant interactive effects.
One outlier was omitted from the analysis; retaining the outlier yielded the following: t = 1.95, p = .053, d = .27.
In this experiment we did a more precise power analysis using the effect size obtained in Experiment 2 for the red-green comparison as an estimate (d = .31). This power analysis indicated that a sample size of 130 per condition would be needed to obtain power of .80 (p = .05). Thus, in this experiment we set an a priori target of 130 participants per condition, at minimum.
In addition to the experiments reported in the text, we conducted another experiment examining proximity to Valentine’s Day as a potential moderator of the red effect, with blue as the comparison color. Proximity to Valentine’s Day seems a good candidate as a moderator variable, because associations between red and romance may be particularly salient around this holiday, producing a stronger effect of red on perceived attractiveness. Blue is a particularly stringent chromatic comparison, because it has been shown to have positive associations that could be relevant to mate evaluation (e.g., high quality and competence, Labrecque and Milne 2011). The procedure of the experiment was similar to that of Experiment 3, excepting the collection of Valentine’s Day information, the absence of a no-color condition, the use of blue as a color comparison, and the presence of an age restriction of 18–35. The between-subjects color manipulation was instantiated via shirt description, with 103 participants receiving a red description and 107 receiving a blue description. The same perceived attractiveness measure from Experiment 3 was used (α = .93). For the Valentine’s Day variable, we created a dichotomous variable representing either close proximity to the holiday (within 1 week: n = 71) or distant proximity (outside of 1 week: n = 139); we also created a variable representing whether participation occurred before/during (n = 108) or after (n = 102) Valentine’s Day. The experiment did not yield significant findings for either of the Valentine’s Day interactions (Fs < .54, ps > .47), nor the color contrast (t = −.27, p = .79). Thus, proximity to Valentine’s Day did not receive support as a moderator variable. Red-romance associations many not be as salient around this holiday as we had anticipated, and a more powerful test of this “association salience” idea could be carried out by directly priming participants with romance-relevant concepts (or not) prior to presenting them with red and mate-relevant targets to evaluate. The absence of a red effect in this experiment may point to a boundary condition to the effect – it may not emerge when processing the word red relative to blue. Given that some research using actual colors has observed a red advantage over blue, at least under some conditions (Buechner et al. 2015; Elliot et al. 2010; Roberts et al. 2010), the absence of an effect herein may either suggest that the effect is weaker for processing color words than for viewing actual color stimuli, or it may point to cultural specificity of the red effect, as nearly all of the work conducted with actual red and blue colors was conducted in England and Germany (for the potentially powerful impact of country, region, and even university on color associations, see Prado-Leon et al. 2014; Schloss et al. 2011). Future research is needed to further examine these possibilities.
It should be noted that “Asian” is a broad and diverse category, encompassing different countries and groups that may have very different color associations (see Jiang et al. 2014). Researchers interested in making race a central focus of their research in this area would do well to be precise in their sample selection, accordingly.
Barsalou, L. W. (1999). Perceptual symbol systems. Behavioral and Brain Sciences, 22, 577–660.
Barsalou, L. W. (2008). Grounded cognition. Annual Review of Psychology, 59, 617–645.
Bertrams, A., Baumeister, R. F., Englert, C., & Furley, P. (2015). Ego depletion in color priming research: self-control strength moderates the detrimental effect of red on cognitive test performance. Personality and Social Psychology Bulletin, 41, 311–322.
Buechner, V. L., Maier, M. A., Lichtenfeld, S., & Elliot, A. J. (2015). Emotion expression and color: their joint influence on perceived attractiveness and social position. Current Psychology, 34, 422–433.
Buhrmester, M., Kwang, T., & Gosling, S. (2011). Amazon’s mechanical Turk: A new source of inexpensive, yet high-quality, data? Perspectives on Psychological Science, 6, 3–5.
Carrito, M., Dos Santos, I., Lefevre, C. E., Whitehead, R. D., da Silva, C., & Perrett, D. I. (2016). The role of sexually dimorphic skin colour and shape in attractiveness of male faces. Evolution and Human Behavior. doi:10.1016/j.evolhumbehav.2015.09.006.
Clarke, T., & Costall, A. (2008). The emotional connotations of color: A qualitative investigation. Color Research and Application, 33, 406–410.
DeHouwer, J. (2003). On the role of stimulus-response and stimulus-stimulus compatibility in the stroop effect. Memory & Cognition, 31, 903–904.
Elliot, A. J. (2015). Color and psychological functioning. A review of theoretical and empirical work. Frontiers in Psychology, 6, 368.
Elliot, A. J., & Maier, M. A. (2013). The red-attractiveness effect, applying the Ioannidis and Trikalinos (207b) test, and the broader scientific context. Journal of Experimental Psychology: General, 142, 297–300.
Elliot, A. J., & Maier, M. A. (2014). Color psychology: effects of perceiving color on psychological functioning in humans. Annual Review of Psychology, 65, 95–120.
Elliot, A. J., & Niesta, D. (2008). Romantic red: red enhances men’s attraction to women. Journal of Personality and Social Psychology, 95, 1150–1164.
Elliot, A. J., Niesta Kayser, D., Greitemeyer, T., Lichtenfeld, S., Gramzow, R. H., Maier, M. A., & Liu, H. (2010). Red, rank, and romance in women viewing men. Journal of Experimental Psychology: General, 139, 399–417.
Frank, M. G., & Gilovich, T. (1988). The dark side of self- and social perception: black uniforms and aggression in professional sports. Journal of Personality and Social Psychology, 54, 74–85.
Gibbs Jr., R. W. (2006). Embodiment and Cognitive science. New York: Cambridge University Press.
Gonzalez, J., Barros-Loscertales, A., Pulvermuller, F., Meseguer, V., Sanjuan, A., Belloch, V., & Avila, C. (2006). Reading cinnamon activates olfactory brain regions. NeuroImage, 32, 906–912.
Grieve, K. W. (1991). Traditional beliefs and colour perception. Perceptual And Motor Skills, 72, 1319–1323.
Hesslinger, V. M., Goldbach, L., & Carbon, C. (2015). Men in red: A reexamination of the red-attractiveness effect. Psychonomic Bulletin and Review, 22, 1142–1148.
Hsu, N. S., Frankland, S. M., & Thompson-Schill, S. L. (2001). Chromaticity of color perception and object color knowledge. Neuropsychologia, 50, 327–333.
Hutchings, J. (2004). Color in folklore and tradition – the principles. Color Research and Application, 29, 57–66.
Hutchings, J. (2016). Symbolic use of color in ritual, tradition, and folklore. In A. Elliot, M. Fairchild, & A. Franklin (Eds.), Handbook of Color Psychology. Cambridge, England: Cambridge University Press.
Intraub, H., & Hoffman, J. E. (1992). Reading and visual memory: remembering scenes that were never seen. American Journal of Psychology, 105, 101–114.
Jacobs, K. W., Keown, C., Worthley, R., & Ghymn, K. I. (1990). Cross-cultural comparisons: global markers beware! International Marketing Review, 8, 21–30.
Jiang, F., Lu, S., Yao, X., Yue, X., & Au, W. (2014). Up or down? how culture and color affect judgments. Journal of Behavioral Decision Making, 27, 226–234.
Jones, J. T., Pelham, B. W., Carvallo, M., & Mirenberg, M. C. (2004). How do I love thee? let me count the Js: implicit egotism and interpersonal attraction. Journal of Personality and Social Psychology, 87, 665–683.
Kaya, N., & Epps, H. H. (2004). Relationship between color and emotion: A study of college students. College Student Journal, 38, 396–405.
Kubat, R., Mirman, D., & Roy, D. (2009). Semantic context effects on color categorization. In N. Taatgen, & H. van Rijn (Eds.), Proceedings of the 31st annual conference for the Cognitive Science Society (pp. 491–495). Austin, TX: Cognitive Science Society.
Labrecque, L. I., & Milne, G. R. (2011). Exciting red and competent blue: the importance of color in marketing. Journal of the Academy Of Marketing Science, 28, 711–727.
Lakens, D., Fockenberg, D. A., Lemmens, K. P., Ham, J., & Midden, C. J. (2013). Brightness differences influence the evaluation of affective pictures. Cognition and Emotion, 27, 1225–1246.
Leys, C., Ley, C., Klein, O., Bernard, P., & Licata, L. (2013). Detecting outliers: Do not use standard deviation around the mean, use absolute deviation around the median. Journal of Experimental Social Psychology, 49, 764–766.
Lichtenfeld, S., Maier, M. A., Elliot, A. J., & Pekrun, R. (2009). The semantic red effect: processing the word red undermines intellectual performance. Journal of Experimental Social Psychology, 45, 1273–1276.
Meier, B. P., D’Agostino, P. R., Elliot, A. J., Maier, M. A., & Wilkowski, B. M. (2012). Color in context: psychological context moderates the influence of red on approach- and avoidance-motivated behavior. PloS one, 7, e40333.
Meier, B. P., Robinson, M. D., Crawford, L. E., & Ahlvers, W. J. (2007). When ‘light’ and ‘dark’ thoughts become light and dark responses: affect biases brightness judgments. Emotion, 7, 366–376.
Neto, F. (2002). Colors associated with styles of love. Perceptual And Motor Skills, 94, 1303–1310.
Pazda, A. D., Elliot, A. J., & Greitemeyer, T. (2012). Sexy red: perceived sexual receptivity mediates the red-attraction relation in men viewing women. Journal of Experimental Social Psychology, 48, 787–790.
Potter, M. C., Kroll, J. F., Yachzel, B., Carpenter, E., & Sherman, J. (1986). Pictures in sentences: understanding without words. Journal of Experimental Psychology: General, 115, 281–294.
Prokop, P., Pazda, A. D., & Elliot, A. J. (2015). Influence of conception risk and sociosexuality on female attraction to male red. Personality and Individual Differences, 87, 166–170.
Prado-Leon, L. R., Schloss, K. B., & Palmer, S. E. (2014). Color, music, and emotion in Mexican and US populations. In In C.P. Biggam et al. (Eds.), New Directions in Colour Studies. Amsterdam: John Benjamins.
Re, D. E., Whitehead, R. D., Xiao, D., & Perrett, D. I. (2011). Oxygenated-blood colour change thresholds for perceived facial redness, health, and attractiveness. PloS one, 6, e17859.
Richter, T., & Zwaan, R. A. (2009). Processing of color words activates color representations. Cognition, 111, 383–389.
Roberts, S. C., Owen, R. C., & Havlicek, J. (2010). Distinguishing between perceiver and wearer effects in clothing color-associated attributions. Evolutionary Psychology, 8, 350–364.
Rosenthal, R., & Rosnow, R. L. (1991). Essentials of behavioral research: Methods and data analysis. NY, NY: McGraw-Hill, Inc..
Schloss, K. B., Poggesi, R. M., & Palmer, S. E. (2011). Effects of university affiliation and “school spirit” on color preferences: Berkeley versus Stanford. Psychonomic Bulletin & Review, 18, 498–504.
Simmons, W. K., Martin, A., & Barsalou, L. W. (2005). Pictures of appetizing foods activate gustatory cortices for taste and reward. Cerebral Cortex, 15, 1602–1608.
Simmons, W. K., Ramjee, V., Beauchamp, M. S., McRae, K., Martin, A., & Barsalou, L. W. (2007). A common neural substrate for perceiving and knowing about color. Neuropsychologia, 45, 2802–2810.
Slotnick, S. D. (2009). Memory for color reactivates color processing region. Neuroreport, 20, 1568–1571.
Stephen, I. D., & McKeegan, A. M. (2010). Lip colour affects perceived sex typicality and attractiveness of human faces. Perception, 39, 1104–1110.
Stephen, I. D., Oldham, F. H., Perrett, D. I., & Barton, R. A. (2012). Redness enhances perceived aggression, dominance and attractiveness in men’s faces. Evolutionary Psychology, 10, 562–572.
Wartenberg, W., Höpfner, T., Potthast, P., & Mirau, A. (2011). If you wear red on a date, you will please your mate, Proceedings of Empiriepraktikumskongress, 6th, August 7, pp. 26–27. Germany: University of Jena.
Wen, F., Zuo, B., Wu, Y., Sun, S., & Liu, K. (2014). Red is romantic, but only for feminine females: sexual dimorphism moderates the red effect on sexual attraction. Evolutionary Psychology, 12, 719–735.
Zhong, C., Bohns, V. K., & Gino, F. (2010). Good lamps are the best police: darkness increases dishonesty and self-interested behavior. Psychological Science, 21, 311–314.
All procedures performed in these studies involving human participants were in accordance with the ethical standards of the institutional review board and with the 1964 Helsinki declaration and its later amendments.
Informed consent was obtained from all individual participants included in the study.
Conflicts of Interest
Adam D. Pazda declares that he has no conflicts of interest. Andrew J. Elliot also declares that he has no conflicts of interest.
About this article
Cite this article
Pazda, A.D., Elliot, A.J. Processing the Word Red can Enhance Women’s Perceptions of Men’s Attractiveness. Curr Psychol 36, 316–323 (2017). https://doi.org/10.1007/s12144-016-9420-8