In Sports, Red Is Winning Color, Study Says

John Roach
for National Geographic News
May 18, 2005
Note to sportswear shops: stock up on red.

When opponents of a game are equally matched, the team dressed in red is more likely to win, according to a new study.

British anthropologists Russell Hill and Robert Barton of the University of Durham reached that conclusion by studying the outcomes of one-on-one boxing, tae kwon do, Greco-Roman-wresting, and freestyle-wrestling matches at the 2004 Summer Olympics in Athens, Greece.

In each event Olympic staff randomly assigned red or blue clothing or body protection to competitors. When otherwise equally matched with their opponent in fitness and skill, athletes wearing red were more likely to win the bout.

"Where there was a large point difference—presumably because one contestant was far superior to the other—color had no effect on the outcome," Barton said. "Where there was a small point difference, the effect of color was sufficient to tip the balance."

In equally matched bouts, the preponderance of red wins was great enough that it could not be attributed to chance, the anthropologists say. Hill and Barton found similar results in a review of the colors worn at the Euro 2004 international soccer tournament. Their report will be published in tomorrow's issue of the journal Nature.

Joanna Setchell, a primate researcher at the University of Cambridge in England, has found similar results in nature. Her work with the large African monkeys known as mandrills shows that red coloration gives males an advantage when it comes to mating.

The finding that red also has an advantage in human sporting events does not surprise her, addding that "the idea of the study is very clever."

Sexual Draw

Hill and Barton got the idea for their study study out of a mutual interest in the evolution of sexual signals in primates—"red seems to be the color, across species, that signals male dominance and testosterone levels," Barton said.

For example, studies by Setchell, the Cambridge primate researcher, show that dominant male mandrills have increased red coloration in their faces and rumps. Another study by other scientists shows that red plastic rings experimentally placed on the legs of male zebra finches increase the birds' dominance.

Barton said he and Hill speculated some speculated that "there might be a similar effect in humans. And if so, [it] could be apparent in sporting contests."

Hill and Barton found their answer by studiously viewing Olympic combatants in the ring, on the mat, and in the field. "Across a range of sports, we find that wearing red is consistently associated with a higher probability of winning," the researchers write in Nature.

The pair say their results indicate that sexual selection may have influenced the evolution of humans' response to color.

Setchell, the primatologist, agrees. "As Hill and Barton say, humans redden when we are angry and pale when we're scared. These are very important signals to other individuals," she said.

Advantage: Red

The advantage of red may be intuitively known, judging from the prevalence of red uniforms in sports—"though it is clearly not very widely appreciated, on a conscious level at least," Barton said.

He adds that the finding of red's advantage might have implications for regulations that govern sporting attire. In the Olympic matches he surveyed for the new study, for example, it is possible some medal winners may have reached the pedestal with an unintended advantage.

"That is the implication, though we cannot say that it made the difference in any one specific case," Barton said.

Meanwhile, Setchell noted—tongue-in-cheek—that a red advantage may not be limited to sports. "Going by the recent [U.S.] election results, red is indeed quite successful," she said.

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