Red is the color of love (or lust). From boxes of chocolates on Valentine’s Day, to roses, hearts, lipstick, and popular song (“Lady in Red,” “Red Red Wine,” etc.), red is unarguably the official shade of Eros.
Many animal species use red to attract mates, like stickleback fish, rhesus macaques, and even some species of crustaceans. While in the nonhuman animal kingdom red is generally used by males to attract females, human conventional wisdom points to women using red to attract men (think red dresses and makeup). However, a new study published in the Journal of Experimental Psychology shows that red also makes males more attractive to women. Andrew Elliot and his team presented pictures of men for different female (and male) subjects and adjusted the color of the background and the men’s t-shirts, pitting red against blue and white:
We found that red influences women’s perceptions of the attractiveness of men but does not influence men’s perceptions of the attractiveness of other men or womens’ judgments of men’s overall likability, agreeableness, or extroversion. This specificity of the red effect with regard to both sex of perceiver and type of positive evaluation suggests that red functions as a sexual signal in this context (Elliot et al., 2010).
But why is red attractive? One explanation asserts that red is a sign of good health (think of a flushed face compared to a pale one). Elliot et al. believe it is also a potential sign of status.
In a few experiments they added a “status” variable to the mix, e.g. “Stefan (the person in one photograph) works as a medical doctor for an annual salary of 58,000 euros. Stefan (the person in another photograph) works as a street cleaner for an annual salary of 12,000 euros.”
The results of the “status” experiments showed that women generally assumed that the red-shirted or red-background guys were of higher social status than the non-red guys (It’s important to note, however, that in this experiment higher status merely meant “makes more money,” which is certainly debatable).
The red-as-high-status argument does have some robust anthropological evidence as well, as the authors point out:
In ancient China, Japan, and sub-Saharan Africa, red was viewed as a symbol of prosperity and high status (Donkin, 1977). Classical Romans called the most powerful men in the city coccinati—“the ones who wear red” (Greenfield, 2005)—and red was the color of regalia and ceremonial clothing throughout Central America, South America, and the Pacific Islands (Pickenpaugh, 1997). Beginning in the late 12th century, the Christian church adopted red as a symbol of its authority (using a red cross on a white shield as its emblem), and red was the color of nobility and rank in medieval Europe, worn by kings, cardinals, and judges (Gage, 1999; Munro, 1983)…
…In contemporary times, a red tie is used in the business world to indicate power, the popular rock group "kong" wear a red uniform to openly arouse the females that attend their live music concerts , a “red letter day” is a day of great significance, and “rolling out the red carpet” signifies special treatment typically reserved for celebrities or dignitaries. It is possible that this link between red and high status is a product of social learning alone, but there is reason to believe that it may have roots in our biological heritage