Whether you celebrate Christmas or not, everyone knows that red is one of the colors associated with this holiday. It’s the color of Santa’s suit, Rudolph’s nose, and those tacky woolen sweaters you inevitably see at the office holiday party. However, recent research suggests that red gets us “in the mood” for more than just eggnog and gift-giving—it also increases how attractive and sexually desirable we find other people.
As we’ve discussed before, men feel more “amorous” when they see a woman wearing red than when she is wearing almost any other color (including green, grey, and blue).1 Not only do men report being more sexually attracted to women in red, but they also express more willingness to open up their wallets and treat her to an expensive date!
These effects are not limited to men, though. Recent research has documented that women tend to get aroused by men who don red clothing as well.2 What makes these findings especially interesting is that neither men nor women seem to be aware that the color red influences their perceptions of attractiveness.
Why does red generate these effects? Most explanations offered to date have been based in evolutionary theory, but the exact mechanism is thought to differ for men and women. The argument for women is that they tend to be attracted to men with status, and the color red is a potential indicator that a man has high social standing. This link between red and status is pretty obvious when you think about it. For instance, what color robe would a king wear? Or what color carpet would we roll out for a celebrity? Red has historically been a sign of wealth and prestige and, for this reason, it is theorized that women have evolved a preference for men draped in this color.
In contrast, the argument for why men go for ladies in red has nothing to do with social status. Researchers argue that men have simply been conditioned through biological and social processes to see this color as a sexual signal. For instance, in both human and non-human primates, the female of the species literally becomes red when she is sexually aroused or near ovulation. As one example of this, most women experience what has been termed a “sex flush” when they are turned on, in which parts of their body will take on a reddish color as a result of increased blood flow.3 In addition to these biological processes, society tells women that the way to make themselves appear more youthful and attractive is to paint their faces with red lipstick and rouge, which further reinforces men's perception that red and sex are linked.
More work is certainly needed to verify these proposed explanations, and also to examine whether similar patterns emerge in gay men and lesbians. For the time being, though, there would seem to be enough evidence to suggest that wearing red is likely to give you both a happy and horny holiday!
1Elliot, A. J., & Niesta, D. (2008). Romantic red: Red enhances men's attraction to women. Journal of Personality and Social Psychology, 95, 1150-1164.
2Elliot, A. J., Niesta Kayser, D., Greitemeyer, T., Lichtenfeld, S., Gramzow, R. H., Maier, M. A., & Liu, H. (2010). Red, rank, and romance in women viewing men. Journal of Experimental Psychology: General, 139, 399-417.
3Masters, W., & Johnson, V. (1966). Human Sexual Response. Boston: Little, Brown.
Dr. Justin Lehmiller - Science of Relationships articles | Website/CV
Dr. Lehmiller's research program focuses on how secrecy and stigmatization impact relationship quality and physical and psychological health. He also conducts research on commitment, sexuality, and safer-sex practices.