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Red, redux: Men won’t pay attention to Tammy in red

Friday, December 21, 2012
posted by Rita Handrich

You’ve seen our posts on wearing red (for both men and women) and the bounce you get in terms of perceived attractiveness and likability. But wait! New research says it doesn’t work for all of us!

There is some new research that confirms the results of prior research, saying once again that when men look at women wearing red they see those women as more attractive. And women expecting to interact with an attractive man were more likely to choose to wear a red shirt than a blue shirt.

The psychologists who do this research say this is not simply a Western phenomena but rather a seemingly hard-wired and universal preference/predilection as shown by recent research in rural Burkina Faso. (Of course, you already knew Burkina Faso is a landlocked and very poor area in West Africa.)

There is also something a little more disturbing being reported. And here it comes. Researchers in Germany wondered if red was equally flattering to women (in the eyes of heterosexual men) regardless of the woman’s age. They recruited participants to test this question from a shopping district and a university campus. As you perhaps can guess, no, red isn’t equally flattering to women regardless of age. At least not when it comes to making heterosexual men think of sex when they look at you.

The researchers recruited 60 young men–average age 24.7 years– and 60 (what the researchers labeled) “old men”–average age 53.5 years– who were presented with photographs of either a young female target (perceived to be about 23.7 years of age) or an “old female target” (perceived to be about 48.2 years of age). [Let’s agree that these characterizations of “old” are harsh and unreasonable, and just try to move on.] There were four photo variations (e.g., young target/white background, young target/red background, old target/white background, old target/red background) and one of the four photos was shown to every participant. The male research participants were asked the following three questions to determine sexual attractiveness [and we are not making this up]:

How much do you want to be intimate with this person?

How sexually desirable do you find this person?

How much do you want to have sex with this person?

German researchers do not mince words. Subjects were also asked a few other questions about the physical beauty, presumed intellect and likability of the female target. Finally, they were asked to estimate the age of the female target. And here are the (shocking) results:

Men (both old and young) found the young female target more sexually attractive than the old female target.

They found the young targets in front of the red background more attractive than the young targets photographed in front of the white background. As for the “old” target, no one really cared whether she was on a white or red background. There was no difference in how attractive she was described as being. Meh.

Both young and old men thought the young female target was equally sexually attractive. Old men thought the old female target more attractive than the young men did (so much for the cougar stereotype). In truth, the old men thought both young and old women equally sexually attractive (hence, the dirty old man stereotype). Takeaway: Everybody’s got a shot with Grandpa.

The young woman was seen as more physically attractive than the old woman. There were no differences in ratings of intellect or likability between the young woman and the old woman.

The researchers explain these results with hypotheses that are common among evolutionary psychologists and that make the rest of us (at least the “old women” among us) wince, gasp or growl. The researchers thought perhaps the young female target on the red background was more sexually attractive to the male participants because the “color red activates cognitive representations of ‘red-light districts’ in men, and the typical female sex worker is closer to 20 than 50 years old”. They further stick their feet in their mouth with the following: “It could also be that red is perceived as a cue to a woman’s ovulation, and our old target is clearly menopausal, so red is not a valid cue”. Evolutionary psychologists are not known for their wisdom in avoiding the application of gender stereotypes to explain their findings. It also makes one long for research on the dating aplomb of evolutionary psychologists. Not a romantic subgroup, apparently.

So. While we would say Tammy looks terrific in that red dress, this research would say it won’t help her be more persuasive or likable– in court or anywhere else. Red fades with time, and Tammy’s time has expired. Although old men will perhaps still leer since it seems as long as you are female, it works for them. Oy. Sometimes it’s hard to be a woman. Or maybe it becomes easier with time. Women in your 40’s or older: Wear the outfit you like the most, and to heck with what researchers say!

Elliot, A., Greitemeyer, T., & Pazda, A. (2012). Women’s use of red clothing as a sexual signal in intersexual interaction Journal of Experimental Social Psychology DOI: 10.1016/j.jesp.2012.10.001

Elliot, A., Tracy, J., Pazda, A., & Beall, A. (2013). Red enhances women’s attractiveness to men: First evidence suggesting universality Journal of Experimental Social Psychology, 49 (1), 165-168 DOI: 10.1016/j.jesp.2012.07.017

Schwarz, S., & Singer, M. (2013). Romantic red revisited: Red enhances men’s attraction to young, but not menopausal women Journal of Experimental Social Psychology, 49 (1), 161-164 DOI: 10.1016/j.jesp.2012.08.004

***We appreciate being included in the ABA Blawg 100 for the third year in a row! If you like our blawg, take a minute to vote for us here (under the Trial Practice category). Voting ends today–December 21, 2012. Thanks! Doug and Rita***


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