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Interviewee: Andrew Elliot, University of Rochester
The idea that wearing red could give an athlete a competitive advantage made headlines in 2005 when researchers published a paper in the journal Nature. A look at the results from the 2004 summer Olympics showed that in four combat sports (boxing, taekwondo, Greco-Roman wrestling and freestyle wrestling) athletes wearing red gear won more often.
The researchers suggested that the effect was due to evolutionary or cultural associations of the color red with dominance or aggression. An athlete wearing red subconsciously feels more powerful or superior, while his or her opponent feels less so.
But other psychology researchers wondered if there was more to it. Norbert Hagemann and his colleagues at the University of Munster’s Institute of Sport Psychology in Germany wanted to test how much of an impact red might have on a referee.
They filmed a series of taekwondo sparring bouts where one opponent was outfitted with blue protective gear while the other wore red. After importing these videos into editing software, they digitally swapped the colors of the protective gear. The end result was a series of videos with identical performances, but the colors on each person could be changed.
Hagemann and his colleagues had 42 experienced taekwondo referees watch the videos at two separate times: once watching the original videos, and a second time watching the digitally swapped videos. They also asked the referees to assign points to each fighter.
They found that although the performances were exactly the same, red fighters always got more points. In other words, a fighter who scored fewer points wearing blue was later assigned more points for performing the same while wearing red.
The difference was small: an average of eight points for red versus seven for blue. But this difference is statistically significant, and the researchers say the bias is most likely only important for close matches anyway.
“Referees’ decisions will ‘tip the scales’ when athletes are relatively well matched, but have relatively small influence when one is clearly superior,” they wrote in the journal Psychological Science.
The fact that red has a strong influence on our subconscious is well documented. University of Rochester psychology professor Andrew Elliot has studied the effect of red on students about to take a test. Last year he found that seeing red just before taking a test correlated with lower test scores (see ScienCentral News’ Red & Lower Test Scores).
Elliot says he’s not surprised by the new results, and believes the effect of red on referees could be caused by the same things that other researchers thought was affecting athletic opponents.
“Red might have a similar effect in humans that it has in the wild with primates,” he says. “So in certain primates, red is a dominance or superiority cue,” explaining that if two apes are competing for the same mate or the same territory, “the one that’s dominant or larger will, through a testosterone surge, show red on its chest or face. And that’s a cue that the other ape should avoid that ape because it’s more powerful.”
Elliot does not think that the new research rules out the possibility that red effects both athletic opponents and referees.
“Wearing a red uniform could have a positive effect on your team’s performance because your opponents are looking at the red that you’re wearing,” he says, which could instill fear or avoidance in them.
In fact, a competitive advantage for red players has even been reported in video games.
The Beijing Games
Despite the body of research, this does not necessarily mean that a country like China has an unfair advantage because of its mostly red uniforms.
“I do not think that China has an unfair advantage in the Olympics, and I do not believe that there is a general positive effect for red,” Hagemann said in an email. “Our results points to the referees in combat sport in which two athletes are involved. … And our experiment is a comparison of red versus blue and therefore the effect is between these two colors. … If red versus, for example, black produces the same difference, is not clear.”
So there may not be much need to raise a red flag just yet. But if you’re going for gold, it probably couldn’t hurt to put on some red.
Hagemann, et. al‘s research was published in the August 2008 issue of Psychological Science and received no outside funding.
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