Psychology study shows how using the color red to increase attractiveness can backfire

New research provides evidence that the color red can affect married women’s evaluations of male attractiveness.

The findings, which appear in the Journal of Experimental Psychology: Applied, suggest that the color red may trigger avoidance behaviors in married women in an effort to maintain their relationship.

“I am generally interested in how people form first impressions and color is a cue that is often present when people form impressions about others,” said study author Nicolas Pontes, a lecturer at The University of Queensland.

“Thus far research has generally found that the color red has an attraction (positive) effect on romantic contexts and an avoidance (negative) effect on achievement contexts. We were interested in examining whether the red color could trigger avoidance behavior also in romantic contexts.”

Two studies with 1,009 female participants (aged between 18 to 50) found that married women viewed men as less attractive when their picture was displayed on a red versus a white background. However, the opposite relationship was found among single women.

In a third study of 412 married women, the researchers found that participants who were shown a man on a red background were more likely to recall words related to relationship commitment and threat than those shown a man on a white background.

“Our research has implications not simply for romantic relationships but also for interpersonal encounters more generally at the workplace, interactions in hospitality as well as in advertising,” Pontes told PsyPost.

“For example, a large body of research shows that individuals who are perceived as more attractive have a number of employment advantages, including being perceived as more likeable and better communicators, and being hired and promoted more often.”

“Nonetheless, our work suggests that wearing red as a strategy to enhance those advantages could backfire depending on the marital status of those doing the judging, particularly women judging men,” Pontes explained.

“In addition, a common ritual for many couples is to dine out and when doing so, individuals are potential exposed to service providers (e.g., waiters) that may be perceived as attractive and, therefore, a potential threat to one’s relationship, particularly if these waiters wear red clothing.

“The use of red clothing by male waiters in such contexts, however, is potentially detrimental given that receiving tips is a substantial portion of their income,” Pontes told PsyPost.

“In sum, while most research would suggest that wearing the color red can enhance one’s attractiveness to others, our research suggests wearing the color red in an attempt to increase attractiveness and impress another may backfire and essentially lead to undesired outcomes when the person is married, which is the case for more than half of the population.”

The researchers also found that self-control played a role. In the third study, the some of the participants were required to complete a monotonous task that has been shown to deplete people’s cognitive resources.

“We found that when our defense mechanisms are up and running, people respond defensively to the color red as a threat signal by derogating attractive opposite-sex persons. However, when we are depleted or tired, for example, we do not possess enough self-control to respond, and the red derogation effect is mitigated,” Pontes said.

The study, “The red-derogation effect: How the color red affects married women’s ratings of male attractiveness“, was authored by Nicolas Pontes and JoAndrea Hoegg.