The Science of Colour 4

How wearing red could make you a top sportsman
14 January 2007

Interview with 

Anna Lacey


Chris - Time for another instalment of our science and colour series. This week, our Naked Scientist Anna Lacey is looking at how the colour red could turn you into a world-class sportsman.

Anna - Here's a question for you. What's the most important thing to think about if you're an Olympic wrestler, a Premiership footballer, or a seasoned athlete like myself? Is it training hard? Eating the right things? Well maybe, but it turns out that the colour of your sports kit may make the difference between winning and losing. To explain why while I do some stretches, here's Dr Russell Hill from the Evolutionary Anthropology group at Durham University.

Russell - We looked at the results from the combat competitions at the recent Olympic Games to see if colour was influencing the success of competitors within events such as boxing and wrestling. And what we found was that even though individuals were randomly assigned either red or blue to wear, there were significantly more winners actually wearing the red colouration.

Anna - So why do you think this might be?

Russell - Well we know that within the animal kingdom, the colour red is frequently associated with dominance. For example, in mandrill monkeys it's only the dominant males that are able to display this red colouration as a sort of badge of status. And we know that it's linked to testosterone levels in these males, so we think that something similar might be happening in human contests and that by wearing this red stimulus, it's giving competitors some form of advantage in one-on-one contests.

Anna - So do you think that this wearing red is going to have any bearing on whether someone like, say, Manchester United wins the league versus Chelsea?

Russell - It's certainly true that if you look back over the last few decades that teams wearing red have dominated the football leagues; both Liverpool, Arsenal and Manchester United all wear red as their primary shirt colour. What is important though is that individuals or teams need to be closely matched before this red advantage takes effect. Simply wearing red doesn't make you a brilliant footballer or boxer. It is possible for teams such as Chelsea to overcome that by spending an awful lot of money. So Manchester United do have an advantage as long as it remains a relatively close competition, but if they go out and spend those Russian millions again this January, Chelsea could find themselves way out in front again.

Anna - I mean there are a lot of other things that are associated with the colour red: not only aggression, but anger, passion, even warmth. Why do you think that red is so important in these kinds of contexts?

Russell - We're not entirely sure. We know that it's a consistent signal throughout animals, so the fact that it's important in humans is perhaps not surprising. Red is often one of the first colours that tends to get identified after black and white or dark and light within human societies. So it clearly is an important colour and that may be due to the way it's linked in with the colour of blood.

Anna - The associations we make, such as red representing blood and anger, and blue as tranquil and cold, are heard pretty much everywhere. But the colours and what they relate to are not the same the world over. From the Department of Social Anthropology at Cambridge University, here's Professor Alan MacFarlane.

Alan - A very famous difference is that in the West, black is the colour of death and evil and things like this, whereas in China, Japan and East Asia, white is the colour of death. So there's a complete opposition.

Anna - Is it the case that now the world is becoming much smaller, are the colour associations changing do you think?

Alan - I think they are. That's to say for instance that a Japanese or Chinese wedding will have white, I mean the bride will wear white, because it's a part of becoming modern and Western et cetera, to adopt the colour categories of whatever is the leading power in the world. So I think there is a great homogenisation going on all over the world.

Anna - Even if everyone ends up describing emotions and using colour in the same way, something that many would see as a great shame, we can at least breathe a sigh of relief when we look at the huge variety of colour in nature. So join me next week for the final part of the series and a whistle stop tour of colour in the animal kingdom.


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