Raj Persaud, M.D. and Peter Bruggen, M.D.

Slightly Blighty

Is Red Really the Color of Seduction?

Does red make you more attractive or is beauty in the eye of the beholder?

Posted Feb 19, 2019

By Dr. Raj Persaud

Valentine’s Day is marked by the color red. Earlier studies by psychologists seemed to confirm red was a unique color with some kind of deep psychological significance when it comes to romance.

Tumisu Pixabay
Why is valentine's day imagery always red?
Source: Tumisu Pixabay

The bouquet signaling love on Valentine’s Day does tend to be a bunch of red roses, while red hearts decorate the cards.

Red is clearly the color of love, passion, and romance, but does scientific research confirm whether wearing red, for example, actually makes you more attractive?

Daniel Re, Ross Whitehead, Dengke Xiao and David Perrett from the University of St Andrews, in the UK, published a study which found that slightly redder faces are found more attractive and also healthier.

The authors of the study, entitled, ‘Oxygenated-Blood Colour Change Thresholds for Perceived Facial Redness, Health, and Attractiveness’, argue that in humans, more oxygenated blood produces brighter red or pinker coloration of the skin.

The investigation, published in the academic journal PLOS One, argues that higher blood oxygenation can indicate cardiovascular fitness.

One evolutionary psychology theory is that the physical characteristics we are attracted to are not accidental, nor just sentimental or individual preference. Instead, we are obeying a genetic programme, often operating below conscious awareness.

What we are drawn to includes signals of physical fitness in others, for example youth. Younger people are more fertile than older people and more likely to survive adverse environmental conditions. Mingling your genes with the fitter ones of the more physically fit increases the survival chances of your offspring. Fitness can be increased with aerobic exercise as can blood oxygenation, so you look slightly redder or pinker after vigorous exercise, sending a signal that you are fit. Maybe this is why red is associated with attractiveness.

In women, the authors of the study point out, higher estrogen levels are associated with increased dilation of skin blood vessels. This means that when women are at their most fertile in their menstrual cycle, they tend to boast slightly redder skin. The increased redness or pinkness may not be consciously detected by men, but instead triggers physical attraction despite operating below conscious awareness.

Evolutionary psychologists argue that it makes sense that men find women more physically attractive who are slightly redder—they are more likely to pass on their genes to future generations if they mate with a slightly redder woman than a paler one, who is less likely to be at the right place in their menstrual cycle.

As women have been using red on their lips since 10,000 B.C, this is an ancient strategy. A recent study from the University of Potsdam, University of Munich and Florida State University attempted to explore more deeply how women use the color red when it comes to romantic strategies.

This study, published in the academic journal PLOS One, found that women who expected to interact with an attractive man tended to display more red, for example on clothing, accessories, and/or makeup, more often than a woman who had no such expectation. Also, when women expected to interact with an unattractive man, they shunned red, displaying it less often than in the baseline condition.

This last finding is particularly interesting as no previous research evidence had addressed the issue that women might actively avoid displays of red when confronted with romantically undesirable men. The authors argue that women’s use of red in clothing, accessories, and make-up reflects a romance strategy to enhance chances of attracting desirable men yet also avoiding undesirable partners.

These researchers found that in their experiment, women in a relationship still displayed red when expecting to meet an attractive man. The academics cited other previous research which found that when interested in casual sex, but not other kinds of relationships, women were more apt to wear red on a dating website.

Nevertheless, research on the so-called 'red-romance' effect has become increasingly controversial. More recent studies tend to struggle to replicate the findings of earlier research that wearing red, for example, meant that you were found more attractive.

In an attempt to resolve the controversy, a recent review pooled the results for a large number of studies involving a total of 3,381 subjects and attempted to summarize what the different studies show about the red-romance effect. The review of the research was entitled, 'Meta-Analysis of the Effect of Red on Perceived Attractiveness', and was published by psychologists based at the University of Rochester and The Dominican University, both in the USA.

For both men rating women and women rating men, the meta-analysis indicates a statistically significant medium-sized effect in the increase in attractiveness with increased facial redness. However, when it came to other red-romance effects, such as whether wearing red clothes or having your image framed by a red border, the effect on attractiveness was less clear.

The authors of the meta-analysis, Gabrielle Lehmann, Andrew Elliot, and Robert Calin-Jageman, point out that perhaps the simplest conclusion from their results is that the true effect of incidental red on attraction could be very small and even potentially nonexistent in real-world circumstances, where it may get drowned out by the effects of other factors.

It might all depend on the particular shade of red you investigate, whether those being studied are physically desirable in other characteristics, the background context in which the rating of attractiveness is being made, and how ethnically diverse the group being rated or doing the rating are. Another possibility is that a ceiling effect may operate, whereby wearing red doesn't bring anything to the party if you are already drop-dead gorgeous. 

But the fact that the red-romance effect appeared at its most robust when it comes to redder faces suggests there is something about how intrinsic red is to you as a person that may influence the effect.

We don't know, for example, if wearing red so much that it appears part of your personal style, for example, may have a stronger effect than the psychology experiments have so far uncovered. Wearing red tends to be a confident statement about not minding standing out from the crowd, as red is the color that tends to get the most attention. Does red actually produce its effect through attention-gaining and confidence-signaling?

How adept at reading color you truly need to be when you want to play in the game of love remains something of a mystery.

But then, maybe romance, at its heart, should remain a little mysterious.

References

Oxygenated-Blood Colour Change Thresholds for Perceived Facial Redness, Health, and Attractiveness. Daniel E. Re, Ross D. Whitehead, Dengke Xiao, David I. Perrett. PLOS ONE https://doi.org/10.1371/journal.pone.0017859 Published: March 23, 2011

Strategic Sexual Signals: Women's Display versus Avoidance of the Color Red Depends on the Attractiveness of an Anticipated Interaction Partner. Daniela Niesta Kayser, Maria Agthe, Jon K. Maner PLOS ONE Published: March 9, 2016 https://doi.org/10.1371/journal.pone.0148501

Meta-Analysis of the Effect of Red on Perceived Attractiveness Gabrielle K. Lehmann, Andrew J. Elliot, and Robert J. Calin-Jageman. Evolutionary Psychology October-December 2018: 1–27