Home > General, Sex/Gender Differences > ROMANTIC REDux


February 17, 2010 Leave a comment Go to comments

About two years ago, Elliot & Niesta (2008), concluded that the color red makes men find women more attractive. Essentially, they found that men – but not women – rated black and white photos of women about a point higher in physical attractiveness (on a 9-point scale) when the photos were presented on a red background than when presented on a white/gray/green background. They also found a similar result when the woman’s shirt was red rather than blue in a color photograph. The authors favor a sexual-signalling interpretation of these results: that men key into displays of red in women due to the color’s role in signaling sexual health/availability/interest/arousal (they do acknowledge, however, that other – more culturally influenced – explanations for this data are possible). The implication is that red enhances attractiveness (the photos used reasonably attractive subjects) – not by an intrinsic characteristic of the stimulus like symmetry or averageness – but by somehow covertly activating sexual cognition in men. I have been unable to find a replication of this research in the subsequent literature. After two years, this lack of replication or direct follow-up on a variable with this much potential impact on attractiveness ratings is concerning.

I am aware of one subsequent study that relates the color red to attractiveness indirectly: Stephen, et.al. (2009) have found that the color “blood red” makes faces appear healthier (apparently, no direct rating of attractiveness was used in this study). Other psychology of color studies have been and continue to be published: with no clear application to beauty research. For example, using a Stroop-like methodology, Moller et.al. (2009) found that the color red is implicitly associated with failure and negativity – a relationship that is difficult to mesh with the Elliot & Niesta data.

The photo of Daniela Niesta (below) is available from the University of Rochester website:

It is possible to download a full-size version of the image from this page. If you do, I urge you to look at the images displayed in this photo. They are examples of the stimuli used in experiment five. To my eye, on my color calibrated monitor, the skin tone in the image with the red shirt is more pleasing. This is likely due to a contrast effect, as only the colors of the shirt were manipulated by the experimenters. This, of course, suggests a competing explanation for the data (at least of experiment five).

All-in-all, a cautious acknowledgment of the conclusions reached in the Elliot & Niesta study is called for, pending replication and clarification in further research.

Wayne Hooke

Photo of J.W.Waterhouse’s Lady of Shalott courtesy of Wikipedia Commons.

Photo of Daniela Niesta courtesy of the University of Rochester.

ResearchBlogging.orgElliot, A., & Niesta, D. (2008). Romantic red: Red enhances men’s attraction to women. Journal of Personality and Social Psychology, 95 (5), 1150-1164 DOI: 10.1037/0022-3514.95.5.1150

Moller, A., Elliot, A., & Maier, M. (2009). Basic hue-meaning associations. Emotion, 9 (6), 898-902 DOI: 10.1037/a0017811

Stephen, I., Coetzee, V., Law Smith, M., & Perrett, D. (2009). Skin Blood Perfusion and Oxygenation Colour Affect Perceived Human Health PLoS ONE, 4 (4) DOI: 10.1371/journal.pone.0005083

  1. February 18, 2010 at 12:07 am

    Interesting research, and I’m inclined to believe the biological rather than social explanation for once. Especially after looking at the pictures, the girl in the red top does actually look prettier, very wierd!

    (The Lady of Shalott painting is beautiful btw. She’s got this wonderful “I am FED UP with this sh*t” expression on :p )

  2. whooke
    February 18, 2010 at 8:11 am

    I also noticed the effect in the color photos: I remain skeptical about the biological explanation, though. My reading of the Romantic Red paper is that Elliot & Niesta are suggesting that men’s response to red is something like a fixed-action pattern:



    (I know you’re a biologist, so, no offense intended with the links: they’re for readers who may not be familiar with the concept of FAP).

    The experiments using red borders around black and white images might support an interpretation like that (but lack of replication and direct follow-up research after two years on a topic like this is a warning signal that replications may have failed). The colored shirt preference, though, is better explained by the more general phenomenon of contrast effects (works with lots of colors – not just red – works with non-human stimuil – works for both men and women – etc). I lean toward the more generalized, broadly supported mechanism of action until there is a direct head-to-head comparison of the FAP v contrast effect hypotheses along with substantial replication of the basic hypothesis.


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