Romantic Red: Does Dressing In Red Really Make You More Sexually Attractive?

Over the last decade, scientists have published a series of studies claiming that the color red is a sexual signal and that wearing it makes you more attractive to the other sex. However, a new meta-analysis of the research in this area suggests that this claim may be overblown.

Early studies found that heterosexual men see woman who are dressed in red as more sexually desirable than women wearing virtually any other color (e.g., blue, green, grey, etc.) [1]. Not only do men rate women in red as more attractive, but they’re also more inclined to ask these women out and spend larger amounts of money on dates.

A similar finding has been documented among women: red also enhances men’s attractiveness in the eyes of heterosexual women [2]. Research suggests that people don’t even have to be wearing red in order for these effects to occur—simply standing against a red background seems to do the trick. 

Scientists have pointed to an evolutionary explanation for these effects: they argue that women tend to be attracted to men with status and because red has come to be seen as a status symbol, women should find men in this color to be especially attractive. As for men’s attraction to women wearing red, they suggest it’s because men have been conditioned to see this color as a sexual cue. Why? In both human and non-human primates, the female of the species literally turns red during sexual arousal and/or at peak fertility. For instance, women often develop a reddish rash that appears primarily on the chest when they’re sexually aroused, which has been dubbed the “sex flush” [3].

While much has been said and written about this “romantic red” phenomenon (as some have called it), a recent meta-analysis of the effect of red on perceived attractiveness suggests that the effect here is “very small, potentially nonexistent” [4].

What the researchers here did was gather all of the relevant data, published and unpublished. This yielded 45 cases of men rating women (totaling 2,961 male participants) and 36 cases of women rating men (totaling 2,739 female participants). 

After synthesizing all of this data, researchers found evidence of a statistically significant, but small effect—and, further, the effect seemed to be smaller for women rating men than it was for men rating women. 

They also found that recently published studies showed smaller effects than studies published longer ago. Further, preregistered studies (i.e., studies the researchers registered in advance before collecting data) showed smaller effects than unregistered studies. 

Further, it turns out that there were a lot of methodological weaknesses in virtually all of the research in this area, which limits the conclusions we can draw. For example, most studies involved very small samples (which, in statistical terms, means they were underpowered). In addition, color production and presentation was very inconsistent across studies. 

What all of this tells us is that there might be an effect of the color red on attraction—but, at best, it seems to be quite small and it may be even weaker in women than it is in men. To better understand this effect, we need a lot more research—and that research needs to involve larger samples and be more carefully controlled. 

In short, if you want to make yourself more attractive, wearing red probably won’t hurt—but it’s not clear that it will offer much help, either.

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[1] Elliot, A.J., & Niesta, D. (2008). Romantic red: Red enhances men’s attraction to women. Journal of Personality and Social Psychology, 95, 1150-1164.

[2] Elliot, A. J., Niesta Kayser, D., Greitemeyer, T., Lichtenfeld, S., Gramzow, R. H., Maier, M. A., & Liu, H. (2010). Red, rank, and romance in women viewing men. Journal of Experimental Psychology: General139(3), 399.

[3] Masters, W., & Johnson, V. (1966). Human Sexual Response. Boston: Little, Brown.

[4]Lehmann, G. K., Elliot, A. J., & Calin-Jageman, R. J. (2018). Meta-analysis of the effect of red on perceived attractiveness. Evolutionary Psychology16(4), 1474704918802412.

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