Is a man in red more dominant than a man in blue?

13 May 2015

Although the Conservative’s blues defeated Labour’s reds in the general election last week, a paper in the Royal Society journal Biology Letters finds that when it comes to perception it is men dressed in red who are thought of as being more dominant than those wearing blue.

Previous studies have shown that in a competitive environment people in red are perceived as more aggressive, dominant, brave and also more likely to win a competition. The study published today is the first to work out if colour has an effect of perceptions of dominance in a non-competitive, neutral setting.

In this study the team of scientists from Durham University investigated how digitally changing the colour of a t-shirt influenced rapid social judgements of the character traits in strangers. The team used 20 images of men and digitally manipulated their clothes to create three copies of each of the photo with the man pictured wearing a different colour t-shirt in each. The photos were presented to 100 volunteers - 50 men and 50 women - who scored them on how aggressive they seemed, how dominant, and whether they appeared angry, happy, frightened or neutral.

The volunteers rated photos of men wearing red t-shirts as more aggressive than the same photo with a blue or grey t-shirt. When it came to judging dominance the female volunteers weren’t swayed by the t-shirt colours but male volunteers judged the red t-shirt wearers to be more dominant as well as more aggressive than those wearing blue or grey. Colour also affected whether the volunteers thought the photographed man was angry or not. Those in red were more often thought of as angrier than those in blue or grey.

The team say perceiving people in red as angry could be connected to biological signals that red colouring implies - for example when we are angry our faces turn red but when we are scared our faces drain of colour. The results of the study show that colour affects our perception of strangers even outside a competitive environment and might provide insights into whether it is advisable to wear red in certain social situations.