Does red turn you on? Some scientists say yes. At the University of Rochester, Andrew Elliot, professor of psychology, and Daniela Neista, post-doctoral fellow, demonstrated that red enhances men’s sexual attraction to women. Their results were published in the Journal of Personality and Social Psychology’s November issue.
In their first experiment, the researchers found that male subjects ranked a woman featured on a black and white picture as more attractive when the picture had a red background, as opposed to a white background. Follow-up experiments illustrated that red – unlike blue and green – enhances males’ desire for sexual activity. When the subjects were asked why they judged as they did, all reported that colour had little to no effect on their judgment. Red appears to influence men on a subconscious level.
The same procedure was used to see if women responded to red in the same way. But they didn’t: red had a slight negative effect on womens’ perception of other women, making them seem less attractive.
Are the results all that surprising? Perhaps not. After all, in Western culture red has a special link with sex – from red Valentine’s hearts to the lady in red, red lingerie to the Moulin Rouge. But the link between red and sex goes farther back than recent history, and farther afield than Western culture. Humanity’s use of red’s sexual appeal is dated to some of the earliest rituals known to anthropologists. Red ochre was used as body and face paint to portray fertility, and the use of red lipstick is dated to at least the ancient Egyptians, circa 10,000 B.C.
That many cultures around the world associate red with sex indicates the link may be more than cultural. But there are other reasons to believe that men’s attraction to red is partly biological.
In many primates species closely related to us, ovulation is usually accompanied by increase in redness on the female genitals. Take, for example, the flamboyantly red perineum of female baboons, chimpanzees, and macaques. Near ovulation, rising estrogen levels lead to increased blood flow under the skin. The resulting reddening of the skin signals to the males that the female is fertile.
The findings from the University of Rochester study could illustrate a biological predisposition for males to interpret red signals as sexual cues.
Elliot believes that the tendency for men to be attracted to women in red is partly biological and partly cultural.
“The societal use of red is not random, but actually derives from the biologically based predisposition to perceive red as a sexual signal. Societal use of red can be seen as not only reinforcing the biological signals of red, but also as extending the application of this meaning beyond the tether of natural bodily processes,” he said.
The result of their study is in concordance with previous findings that seeing red automatically activates memories associated with sexual activity in men. These and other converging experiments hint that as much as men would like to think otherwise, the stereotype claiming men are prone to primitive instincts is partly right.