Friday Weird Science: Lady in red?

Apr 20 2012 Published by under Friday Weird Science

Today's post is a synchro-blogging effort! I'm teaming up with Dr. Zen to talk about the latest in the evolutionary psychology theory of everything. The idea that when we do something, it must be because that behavior has an evolutionary basis. Girls like pink because it makes sense to spot redder berries. Boys are better at math because hunting required linear algebra. And everyone knows that a lady wears red because she wants to get some ACTION.

Or does she?

Elliot and Pazda. "Dressed for Sex: Red as a Female Sexual Signal in Humans" PLoS ONE, 2012.

In many species of animals, red is a sex signal. Baboon females have big red butts, for example, which let males know when they are ready to get it on. But what about humans? Do we also see red as go time?

Some studies say yes. For example, men who view women on a red background or wearing red clothing show more interest in the women and spend more money on them. But red clothing and actually red LADIES appear to be different things. While red lips and cheeks can be seen as signs of health, Dr. Zen covered a recent study (and I'm so jealous he got to it first!) showing that photos of women with redder vaginas actually rated lower on attractiveness. So it appears that the effect may be limited to some things like clothing or lips, rather than ladies flashing red butts (or vaginas) around.

So is red a signal of sexual availability in women? Does wearing red mean you're dressed for sex? To determine the answer to this no doubt haunting and urgent question, the authors of this study the internet. They formed their own experimental dating site (It's for SCIENCE, honey, I swear!), and looking at what women were WEARING.

They performed three separate studies. In the first study, they had women on their fake dating site (don't worry, the women knew it wasn't real) assigned to two groups: interested in casual sex, or normal. In the 'interested in casual sex' group, the women were told to imagine that they were interested in casual hookups. Then they were told to imagine taking a photo of themselves for the site with their cell phone, and asked what color they were wearing: red, black, blue, or green. The women who were put in the "interested in casual sex" scenario were more likely to say they would wear red.

In the second study, they took it to the internet. The authors went on to a dating website, and cruised profiles (for science, honey!!!). They selected 500 profiles of women who said they were interested in "casual sex", and 500 women who didn't check that box. And they looked at the colors people were wearing in the photos: again red, black, green, and blue. They again found that women who checked the "casual sex" box were more likely to be wearing red.

Finally, they did a study looking at the actual behavior of women on a dating site. They focused on a site specifically for casual encounters, and compared it to a site which focused on long-term relationships. They again looked at photos and compared the colors worn: red, black, green, or blue. They found that women on the casual dating site were more likely to wear red.

From these studies, the author conclude that red displays interest in sex, and is similar to red displays in primates who want to get it on. They also hypothesize that red signals that the women is "a worthy competitor" to other females: back off, the boy is mine.

Now, obviously there are some things about these studies that seem a little silly. First off, you're going to ask what color the women wanted to wear in a photo, and only give them four options?! Where's pink? Purple? Brown? Yellow? White? Not only that, there are other issues with the colors chosen. Red and Black are colors that look good on a lot of people. Blue and green? Not always. Did they look just for red? Did they include burgundy or maroon or dark pink? Aside from issues with whether you look good in it, a lot of nicer clothing available for in red or pink. A lot less is available in green or blue. In many clothing stores, you'll see shirts offered in black, white, red, and pink, with few other colors. So maybe there's a little more than just looking red hot going on.

And then there's the most important point: we KNOW that red is hot. We have been told from the time we were small that red is the color of love, the color of lust. When girls go out on dates, other women advise them to wear red. Traditional bridal rules state that you don't want to wear red to a wedding, because you know what THAT means. And every woman in this study walked in to it already knowing that red means sex, and that if they want to look sexy, they should wear red.

So what does this study show? I think, rather than showing that women wear red like a baboon's butt, it shows that our society THINKS red is a sex symbol. We've been told this and shown it. Men are shown it and told it as well. You can't separate out the idea of what red means from whether red is any kind of biological indicator in this study. Sure, it's possible that we may display in red, but it's just as likely that we've merely been told to.

(Let it be known that I loathe this song)

Elliot, A., & Pazda, A. (2012). Dressed for Sex: Red as a Female Sexual Signal in Humans PLoS ONE, 7 (4) DOI: 10.1371/journal.pone.0034607

9 responses so far

  • Yael says:

    "Traditional bridal rules state that you don't want to wear red to a wedding, because you know what THAT means."

    Actually brides wear red at traditional Chinese weddings, and the guests are also encouraged to wear red. Red symbolizes prosperity in Chinese culture--it is not a sex symbol (which supports your idea that red as a sex symbol can be cultural).

    • scicurious says:

      Yes of course! So sorry this completely slipped my.mind. its very true that red means something very different in many eastern cultures. Obviously that slipped the minds of the authors as well!

  • Jacquelyn says:

    I love love love this post because, like so many other evo-psych papers, as I read this I found myself yelling at the laptop things like "BUT WHAT ABOUT SOCIALIZATION!?" and "ASSOCIATIONS WITH COLOR ARE VERY DIFFERENT ACROSS CULTURES AND CHANGE THROUGH TIME!" and etc., etc. So, thanks for giving me something awesome to point people to when they start with the old evo-psych crapola.

    • Jack Shoegazer says:

      Seriously, every evo-psych paper needs to be run past two anthropologists and three sociologists before they're allowed to see the light of day.

      • Yoder says:

        Two anthropologists, three sociologists, and a population geneticist. But then that's six scientists incovenienced every time an evolutionary psychologist figures out how to surf dating sites during work hours.

  • Erin says:

    The "red=health" interpretation makes intuitive sense to me. It also makes sense that more red 'down there' didn't illicit the same response, since it could easily be related to infection and inflammation- not a good sign for a potential mate.

  • [...] study has also been covered eloquently at Scicurious. (Special bonus points to this set of [...]

  • Stevecarb says:

    Interestingly, just read in the new E O Wilson book that red is the colour that is recognized (in language) after black and white in societies with less colour desciptions than ours. So the red preference may be culturally earlier than you think. I'm always excited when two things I am reading have unthought of ( by me) connections. Keep up the sci!

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