I’m confused. Am I supposed to wear red to attract a mate, or not?
These seemingly contraditory findings (which, as I’ll explain in a moment, aren’t actually contradictory) were amusingly published in the same journal within less than two weeks of each other, so I can’t resist a discussion.
It’s an old canard of pop evolutionary psychology that the colour red denotes sex. It had been hypothesized that red ornamentation—especially lipstick—mimics the colour of receptive female genitalia, and therefore advertised (perhaps falsely) fertility or sexual receptivity. A study which I described several weeks ago laid this particular hypothesis to rest by showing that straight men were less sexually interested in pictures of redder female genitals. But still, the colour red has strong cultural connotations, perhaps with evolutionary significance. The newer study was intended to show that red denotes (female) sexual availability—particularly for casual sex.
This study had three parts. First, the researchers recruited women and asked them to pretend they were creating an online dating profile. Half of these women were asked specifically to imagine that they were creating this profile to find casual sex partners. They were asked questions about what their profile picture would look like, including whether they would wear jewelry, and what colour they would wear. Interestingly, they were given only four options: green, blue, black, and red. Women in the “casual sex” group were indeed more likely to say they’d wear red, but by only a small margin (it was just barely statistically significant, at p=.047).
The next part of the study looked at whether this stated preference existed on real online dating sites. The researchers selected profiles of 500 women who were looking for casual sex and 500 who weren’t (must resist urge to make snide remarks about this methodology!). They had three people classify the predominant clothing colour in these profile pictures (again, only red, black, blue, and green were considered). And, indeed, women who were interested in casual sex were more likely to wear red prominently than those who weren’t*.
The third and final part of this study was similar to the second, except that it compared women on websites specifically dedicated to casual relationships to women on sites that emphasized more long-term relationships. A similar result was found: red was more common on the casual sex-focused website.
Now, what can and can’t we conclude from these results, assuming they’re sound? We can say for sure that women (more specifically, women who fit the online dating demographic) who are looking for casual sexual relationships tend to display red clothing more often in the context of looking for those relationships. We cannot say whether this tendency is learned or instinctive, or whether it has an evolutionary “purpose”, or even whether it has anything to do with fertility (=fitness). The authors of this study do a great job of pointing out these limitations. For example, they note that their findings may not hold for face-to-face interactions or for all personalities.
I want to discuss why these results say little about evolution, though, because this is the sort of study that tends to be spun into an evolutionary psych fairy tale. First, it does not distinguish learned from genetically entrained behaviour (and, of course, there may be a little bit of both genes and memes at play). But if this red=casual sex link has a weak genetic basis, it’s probably not something that arose in our species as a result of natural selection in the traditional sense. Second, there’s an underlying assumption that red=casual sex=increased fitness (i.e. more babies). I have a feeling that the average woman these days is not pursuing casual sex in order to get pregnant. Perhaps this was the case in our evolutionary past, but it’s a pretty big assumption.**
Nevertheless, this study is not bad in terms of making wild claims about evolution. I do have some problems with its methods, though. Only four colour options? (None of which include, say, orange or pink—something closer to red.) And no mention of whether shades of pink, orange, or purple could be classified as red. On top of that, having people score what they thought was the “most prominent” colour in the profile pictures seems like not the best method, even though it was repeatable between scorers. (I’m thinking you could come up with a Photoshop manipulation to determine redness of a selected area of clothing. I think it’s been done with stickleback! (That is, with their red throats, not their clothing.))
What you can take away from this paper is that red is associated in women’s minds with sexuality in certain contexts. This is probably not surprising to anyone, but having data to back up the conventional wisdom is always good. However, it’s a huge stretch to ascribe evolutionary significance to this observation. Whether it’s as far a stretch to use it to choose your lipstick colour, though, is entirely up to you.
This study has also been covered eloquently at Scicurious. (Special bonus points to this set of comments.)
*For both of the online dating site studies, most photos had people wearing black, which is interesting if red is really that important a signal. Also, why were so few people wearing green? It’s clearly the best colour. (But not a real green dress, that’s cruel.)
**Also, and this is a question I could probably answer easily with a bit of Google Scholar-ing but I’m too lazy, what about red-green colour blindness, which occurs in 10% of men?
Elliot, A., & Pazda, A. (2012). Dressed for Sex: Red as a Female Sexual Signal in Humans PLoS ONE, 7 (4) DOI: 10.1371/journal.pone.0034607
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