As a diligent reader of Science of Relationships, you’ve read our past articles on how wearing the color red is more than just a fashion choice. For example, you know that men find women more attractive in red because red is seen as an indication of more sexual receptivity. Women also find men who wear red sexually exciting. These findings make it sound like everyone’s date-night wardrobe is set for life – just pick out something red! But anything that easy has to have a catch, right? Before you slip into that new red shirt or dress for your next hot date, you might want to keep reading...
Researchers in Germany wanted to test whether the “sexy red” effect also occurs when the target female (the woman who is being rated or judged) is older.1 Past studies demonstrating the “sexy red” effect used target females who were in their early 20s, and raters (the participants who were doing the rating) were generally young as well. The researchers speculated that part of the effect stems from an evolutionary past of associating red with fertility, highlighting the young woman’s reproductive value. In other words, red acts as a signal of youth and a chance to pass on one’s genes. However, it’s also possible that the power of red is cultural – i.e., it signifies romance, positive feelings, and warmth. If this is the case, the age of the target female would be less important. A menopausal woman, who is unlikely to reproduce further, would still be perceived as sexy in red.
To test these competing ideas, or hypotheses, the researchers prepared four photographs of women by varying the woman’s age and the background color in each photo. That is, there were photographs of a young woman (who looked approximately 24 years old) on both a red background and a white background, and there were photographs of an older woman (approximately 48 years old), also on red and on white backgrounds. The researchers then recruited groups of young men (average age 25) and older men (average age 54). Each man viewed one of the four photos for five seconds and then rated the woman’s sexual attractiveness (e.g., “How much do you want to be intimate with this person?”), physical attractiveness, intelligence, and likeability, among other traits.
Some select findings:
- All of the men found the young woman more sexually attractive when she was against a red background.
- The background color made no difference in the ratings for the older woman.
- Men also rated the younger woman as being more physically attractive with a red background, but aside from that, background color had no effect on ratings of intelligence or likeability for either woman.
Thus, from this study, it seems that red boosts the sexual attractiveness of younger women only. The effect also seems to occur outside of the raters’ consciousness. How do we know this? When asked, the men believed the woman’s facial expression and clothing were what affected their ratings. They thought the background affected their perceptions the least. So, older readers rejoice; there’s no need to fill your closet with red or pose in front of red walls when meeting up with that special someone. Now the question is, what if you’re a 30-something woman (like me)? Does red still give us an extra edge? Well, from what we know, wearing red doesn’t hurt, either. So break out the vermilion blouse or scarlet-soled Louboutins if you’re so inclined. Otherwise, just wear what makes you feel sexy and confident.
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1Schwarz, S. & Singer, M. (2013). Romantic red revisited: Red enhances men's attraction to young, but not menopausal women. Journal of Experimental Social Psychology, 49(1), 161-164. doi:10.1016/j.jesp.2012.08.004
Dr. Helen Lee Lin - Science of Relationships articles | Website/CV
Helen's past research has focused on potential problems in relationships, such as keeping secrets from a significant other. She is also interested in communication as well as the use and consumption of media in relationships, and is planning to work in applied contexts for her future projects.