Content uploaded by Sascha Schwarz
All content in this area was uploaded by Sascha Schwarz on Dec 14, 2020
Content may be subject to copyright.
Romantic red revisited: Red enhances men's attraction to young, but not
⁎, Marie Singer
Technische Universität Dortmund, Dortmund, Germany
Bergische Universität Wuppertal, Wuppertal, Germany
►Young and old men judged a young or older woman against a red or white background.
►Red increases only young woman's sexual attractiveness.
►Young and old men do not differ in this sexual attractiveness ratings.
►Red does not increase physical attractiveness, intelligence or sympathy.
►Men are not aware of this red effect.
Received 8 April 2012
Revised 2 August 2012
Available online 19 August 2012
Colour in context
Recent studies have shown that the color red enhances men's sexual attraction to women. In this study, a
sample of 60 young (M= 24.67 years) and 60 old male participants (M= 53.47 years) was presented either
a young female target (perceived age: M= 23.67 years), or an old female target (perceived age: M=
48.18 years), either on a red or white background. The results show that only the young target was perceived
as more sexually attractive against the red compared to the white background. Background color had no ef-
fect on the sexual attractiveness of the older target. Further implications of these ﬁndings are discussed.
© 2012 Elsevier Inc. All rights reserved.
Previous research has revealed that men evaluate speciﬁc physical
attributes to make judgments about the attractiveness of women. In
brief, regardless of age, men are attracted to women who are at
their peak reproductive potential in order to enhance reproductive
success (Buss, 2008). This reproductive potential is cued by such phys-
ical attributes as a youthful and feminine face, a low waist-to-hip ratio,
and a low, but not too low, body weight (Swami & Furnham, 2008).
Further research reveals nonphysical factors that inﬂuence men's at-
traction to women, e.g., clothing. Studies have shown that prior to ovu-
lation, women are likely to wear more provocative clothes, and men
perceive these women as more attractive (Durante, Griskevicius, Hill,
Perilloux, & Li, 2011; Haselton, Mortezaie, Pillsworth, Bleske-Rechek,
& Frederick, 2007; Röder,Brewer, & Fink, 2009; Schwarz & Hassebrauck,
Recent research has demonstrated thatanother factor can inﬂuence
men's attraction to women: the color red. Red is a very dominant color
and has been directly connected to sexuality for thousands of years.
Ethnographic and archaeological records in southern Africa revealed
that women extensively used red ochre and other red pigments for
cosmetic purposes as a symbol of their fertility (Powers, 1999; Watts,
1999). Some women in Africa still use red ochre during wedding rituals
Even today in more industrialized cultures, most participants rate
red as a positive color, because it is associated with love, passion, and
warmth (Kaya & Epps, 2004). Elliot and Niesta (2008) offered two
possible explanations for the connection between red and sexuality.
The ﬁrst source is conditioning based on the longstanding tradition
connecting red with romantic concepts. For example, red is paired
with hearts on Valentine's Day to symbolize romantic affection, and in
many societies, red signals sexual availability in “red-light”districts.
Second, the color red also has biological roots in reproduction in our
Journal of Experimental Social Psychology 49 (2013) 161–164
☆We thank Georgia von Glasow and Jennifer Bomert for their help in collecting the
data and the reviewers for providing valuable suggestions on an earlier draft of this
⁎Corresponding author at: Bergische Universität Wuppertal, FB G-Sozialpsychologie,
Gauss-Str. 20, 42097 Wuppertal, Germany.
E-mail address: email@example.com (S. Schwarz).
0022-1031/$ –see front matter © 2012 Elsevier Inc. All rights reserved.
Contents lists available at SciVerse ScienceDirect
Journal of Experimental Social Psychology
journal homepage: www.elsevier.com/locate/jesp
close relatives. In some female primates, increased estrogen levels prior
to ovulation lead to increased blood ﬂow, thereby causing the skin at the
genitals, perineum,chest, or face to become red. Male primates are sex-
ually attracted to these cues of ovulation (Deschner, Heistermann,
Hodges, & Boesch, 2004; Dixson, 1983). Regardless of whether one em-
phasizes the proximate societal or the ultimate biological explanation
for the linkage between red and sexuality, red may enhance men's at-
traction to women.
Elliot and Niesta (2008) systematically examined the effect of the
color red on the physical and sexual attractiveness of women. They
showed male participants' pictures of female targets, printed on
either red, white, blue, grey, or green backgrounds. The authors
found that red backgrounds led men to perceive women to be more
physically and sexually attractive than other background colors
(Elliot & Niesta, 2008). This effect was especially strong on ratings of
sexual attractiveness. Sympathy, intelligence, and friendliness ratings
were not inﬂuenced by the background (a similar study by Roberts,
Owen, & Havlicek, 2010 found comparable effects). Niesta-Kayser,
Elliot, and Feltman (2010) also presented evidence from a behavioral
study. When the female target wore a red T-shirt, men chose to sit closer
to her than a woman wearing a blue T-shirt (see also Guéguen, 2012).
However, it is currently unknown if all women are perceived as
more sexually attractive when associated with red. In previous stud-
ies, the targets as well as the participants were young (i.e., around
20 years old). Women around this age are near peak fertility and
have a high reproductive value (Buss, 2008). If red is related to fertil-
ity, older, post-menopausal women (beyond 50 years) should not
generally be viewed by men as sexual targets and thus red should
not elicit any sexual effect. On the other hand, if the societal learning
theory is correct and humans are conditioned to associate red with
romance and sex, red should lead to higher perceptions of attractive-
ness regardless of the age of the woman. Further, as men, regardless
of their own age, prefer young women (Schwarz & Hassebrauck, in
press) we expect red to have an effect independent of men's age.
A total of 120 men participated in this study. The mean age of the
younger men (n=60) was 24.67 years (19–31 years, SD =3.15), and
the mean age of the men in the older cohort (n=60) was 53.47 years
(45–65 years, SD = 4.69).
The questionnaire used in this study was adapted from Elliot and
Niesta (2008). Participants were told that they would participate in
a study on person perception. The following three questions were
used to measure sexual attractiveness (α=.95): “How much do you
want to be intimate with this person?”,“How sexually desirable do
you ﬁnd this person?”, and “How much do you want to have sex
with this person?”
Furthermore, participants were asked to rate the physical attrac-
tiveness (“How beautiful do you think this person is?”), intelligence
(“How intelligent do you think this person is?”), and likeability
(“How much do you like this person?”) of the female targets. Further,
the participants were asked to what degree they believed their
ratings were inﬂuenced by the facial expression, dress, and color of
the background. All items were rated on a 9-point scale (1: not at
all to 9: extremely). Finally, the participants estimated the age of
The photographs were 10.2 cm× 15.2 cm and centered on a DIN
A4 page. The young target was the same one used by Elliot and
Niesta (2008). Pretests have shown that the young target as well as
the older target used in this study were both moderately attractive.
The photos were printed with a HP PSC 1410 on glossy white paper
) and presented on the same red background as in the orig-
inal study or with no background and matched regarding luminance
Participants were recruited from a shopping district in a medium
sized city in Germany as well as a university campus. The experi-
menter randomly showed each participant one of four photos
(i.e., red vs. white background and young vs. old target) for 5 s.
Then the participants completed the questionnaire.
First, we analyzed the perceived target age. The participants per-
ceived the age of the young target as clearly younger (M=23.67 years,
SD=3.67) than the older target (M=48.18 years, SD=5.81, t(118)=
Next, we conducted a 2 (background color: red vs. white)× 2 (age of
target: young vs. older)× 2 (age of participant: young vs. older)-ANOVA
on sexual attraction. Men rated the young target as more sexually at-
tractive (M=4.62, SD=2.31) than the old target (M=3.15, SD=
2.34, F(1, 112)=14.33, pb.001, d=.63). Moreover, the targets in
front of the red background were marginally signiﬁcant rated as
more sexually attractive (M=4.24, SD=2.34) than targets in front of
the white background (M=3.53, SD=2.39, F(1, 112)= 3.25, p=.07,
d=.30). More importantly, these two main effects were qualiﬁed by a
signiﬁcant two-way interaction between background color and age of
the target, F(1, 112)= 4.79, p=.03. Post-hoc tests showed that partici-
pants were more attracted to the young target in front of the red back-
ground than to the same target in front of the white background (F(1,
116)= 7.33, p=.008, d=.71); however, the background color had no
signiﬁcant effect on the sexual attractiveness of the older target
(Fb1). The second signiﬁcant interaction (F(1, 112)= 6.33, p=.01)be-
tween the age of the participant and age of the target shows that both
young and old participants viewed the young womanas equally sexual-
ly attractive (Fb1). In contrast, old participants rated the old target as
more sexually attractive (M=4.07, SD= 2.52) than young participants
(M=2.22, SD =1.44, F(1, 116)= 10.64, pb.001, d=.93). Further
post-hoc tests showed that young participants rated the young target
as more sexually attractive (M=4.68, SD=2.28) than the old target
(M=2.22, SD =1.44), F(1, 116)= 18.75, pb.001, d=1.32. However,
old participants perceived the young and old targets as equally sexually
attractive (Fb1). Finally, there was no signiﬁcant three-way interaction
We further examined the effect of red on ratings of physical attrac-
tiveness,intelligence, and sympathy. Withregard to physical attractive-
ness, a signiﬁcant main effect was observed for the age of the target
(F(1, 112)=13.85, pb.001, d=.67). Speciﬁcally, the young target was
rated as more physically attractive (M=6.32, SD=1.69) than the old
target (M=5.17, SD=1.76). No signiﬁcant effects could be found
with regard to intelligence (max. F(1, 112)=3.44, p=.07) and sympa-
thy (max. F(1,112)= 2.07, p=.15). Especially background color did
not show signiﬁcant effects on these variables (max. F(1, 112)=1.54,
p=.22). Taken together, red only inﬂuenced the ratings of sexual at-
tractiveness of the young targets (cf. Table 1).
Finally, we used a mixed 2 (background color of the photo: red vs.
white)×3 (facial expression, dress, and color of the background)-
ANOVA with repeated measurement on the second factor to control
the degree to which these dimensions inﬂuenced the ratings in the
eyes of the participants. We only found a signiﬁcant main effect for the
A spectrophotometer was used to match the two photos against the red back-
ground. Only slight differences in luminance (young woman: 35.2 vs. old woman:
34.5) and chroma (young woman: 39.3 vs. old woman: 38.6) were found.
162 S. Schwarz, M. Singer / Journal of Experimental Social Psychology 49 (2013) 161–164
repeated measurement factor (F(2, 236) =111.36, pb.001). Paired-
sample t-tests showed that facial expression was reported as the most
important factor for the rating (M=6.52, SD=1.91), followed by the
dress (M=4.75,SD=2.24,t(119) =7.62, pb.001, d=.85)andtheback-
ground color (M=3.09, SD=2.21, t(119)= 14.51, pb.001, d=1.67).
Furthermore, the dress was rated as more important than the back-
ground color (t(119)=7.52, pb.001, d=.75). Thus, the background
color (i.e., red or white) was perceived by the male participants in this
study to be the least important factor.
Overall, red had an impact on the sexual attractiveness of the
young target as perceived by both young and old men. However,
the old target was not perceived as more sexually attractive against
the red background. These ﬁndings cannot be explained by simple
perceptual mechanisms. One could argue that the difference in
color contrast or luminance (Cole, Heywood, Kentridge, Fairholm, &
Cowey, 2003) between the red and white condition may explain
why the woman is perceived as more sexually attractive against the
red background. However, following this reasoning, the old target
should also be perceived as more sexually attractive against the red
background. Thus, such simple perceptual explanations (i.e., color
contrast and luminance) can be excluded as alternate interpretations.
However, this study could not reveal the speciﬁc underlying
mechanism for this effect. It could be that the color red activates cog-
nitive representations of “red-light”districts in men, and the typical
female sex worker is closer to 20 than 50 years old. This could easily
explain why the red effect is speciﬁc to the young target. 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. Both are valid
explanations, and this study is not able to decide between them.
However, it should be noted that this effect seems to be rather auto-
matic and probably below awareness. Recently, Pazda, Elliot, and
Greitemeyer (2012) showed that perceived sexual receptivity medi-
ates red-inﬂuenced attraction to young women. Assuming that the
old target is perhaps seen as less sexually receptive than the young
target, it could be that the old target does not fulﬁll a minimal thresh-
old of sexual receptivity. We did not test this idea directly, but it is
possible that sexual receptivity mediates the red effect in this study
In contrast to the ﬁndings of Elliotand Niesta (2008), we did not ﬁnd
red to have a signiﬁcant effect on physical attractiveness. However, the
data initially reported by Elliot and Niesta (2008) suggest that red has
stronger effect sizes on more sexually explicit measures rather than
physical attractiveness. Thus, red seems to activate more strongly
explicit sexual associations rather than global assessments of physical
Furthermore, the background color did not have any impact on the
perception of the targets' intelligence or levels of sympathy. These
ﬁndings also support the proposition that red exerts a very speciﬁc ef-
fect on young women's sexual attractiveness.
This study has some limitations. First, we used only self-reportsfrom
men. However, other studies have already demonstrated the impact of
the red effect on behavioral measures (Guéguen, 2012; Niesta-Kayser et
al., 2010), suggesting that the red effect is not a methodological artifact.
Second, we did not ask the participants about red–green debility. How-
ever, this debility would have reduced the effect size, which would have
worked against our hypotheses. Third, we did not measure the sexual
orientation of our male participants. Thus, it is currently unknown if
this effect is speciﬁc to heterosexual participants.
Further studies could test additional hypotheses concerning the
red effect, especially the hypothesis that it is a cue for ovulation.
Studies have already shown that women tend to prefer more provoc-
ative clothes prior to ovulation (Durante et al., 2011; Haselton et al.,
2007; Röder et al., 2009; Schwarz & Hassebrauck, 2008). Further
studies could examine whether women also choose more red clothes
prior to ovulation.
Furthermore, a study to distinguish the effects of the color red in
long- versus short-term mating (Buss & Schmitt, 1993) could be fruit-
ful. As red enhances sexual attraction, the red effect should be much
stronger in a short-term (vs. long-term) relationships.
Finally, it is currently unknown if women systematically take advan-
tage of red's effect on sexual attractiveness. It seems reasonable that
women would wear a red dress as an intentional signal (compared to
other colored dresses) when they are sexually interested in a dating
partner (vs. not sexually interested).
Thus, many implications of the effect of red on women's sexual
attractiveness may stimulate further research.
Buss, D. M. (2008).Evolutionary psychology. The new science of the mind (3rd ed.). Boston:
Allyn & Bacon.
Buss, D. M., & Schmitt, D. P. (1993). Sexual strategies theory: An evolutionary perspec-
tive on human mating. Psychological Review,100, 204–232.
Cole, G. G., Heywood, C., Kentridge, R., Fairholm, I., & Cowey, A. (2003). Attentional cap-
ture by colour and motion in cerebral achromatopsia. Neuropsychologia,41,
Deschner, T., Heistermann, M., Hodges, K., & Boesch, C. (2004). Female sexual swelling
size, timing of ovulation, and male behavior in wild West African chimpanzees.
Hormones and Behavior,46, 204–215.
Dixson, A. F. (1983). Observations on the evolution and behavioral signiﬁcance of
“sexual skin”in female primates. Advances in the Study of Behavior,13,63–106.
Douglas, K. (2001). Painted ladies. New Scientist (1971),2312,42–45.
Durante, K. M., Griskevicius, V., Hill, S. E., Perilloux, C., & Li, N. P. (2011). Ovulation,
female competition, and product choice: Hormonalinﬂuences on consumerbehavior.
Journal of Consumer Research,37,921–934. http://dx.doi.org/10.1086/656575.
Elliot, A. J., & Niesta, D. (2008). Romantic red: Red enhances men's attraction to
women. Journal of Personality and Social Psychology,5, 1150–1164.
Guéguen, N . (2012). Color an d women hitchhikers' attractiveness: Gentlemen drivers
prefer red. Color Research & Application,37,76–78. http://dx.doi.org/10.1002/col.
Haselton, M. G., Mortezaie, M., Pillsworth, E. G., Bleske-Rechek, A., & Frederick, D. A.
(2007). Ovulatory shifts in human female ornamentation: Near ovulation,
women dress to impress. Hormones and Behavior,51,40–45.
Kaya, N., & Epps, H. H. (2004). Relationship between color and emotion: A study of co l-
lege students. College Student Journal,38, 396–405.
Niesta-Kayser, D., Elliot, A. J., & Feltman, R. (2010). Red and romantic behavior in men
viewing women. European Journal of Social Psychology,40, 901–908.
Pazda, A. D., Elliot, A. J., & Greitemeyer, T. (2012). Sexy red: Perceived sexual receptiv-
ity mediates the red-attraction relation in men viewing woman. Journal of Experi-
mental Social Psychology,48,787–790. http://dx.doi.org/10.1016/j.jesp. 2011.12.
Powers, C. (1999). ‘Beauty magic’: The origins of art. In R. Dunbar (Ed.), The evolution of
culture (pp. 92–112). Edinburgh: Edinburgh University Press.
Roberts, S. C., Owen, R. C., & Havlicek, J. (2010). Distinguishing between perceiver and
wearer effects in clothing color-associated attributions. Evolutionary Psychology,8,
Mean sexual and physical attractiveness, intelligence and sympathy as a function of age
of participants, background color and age of target.
Measure Age of
Young participants Old participants
Background color Background color
Red White Red White
Sexual attractiveness Young 5.91 1.82 3.44 2.05 4.89 2.26 4.24 2.53
Old 2.22 1.40 2.22 1.53 3.92 2.20 4.22 2.88
Physical attractiveness Young 6.20 1.42 6.40 1.18 6.53 1.96 6.13 2.17
Old 5.00 1.81 4.13 1.41 6.00 1.60 5.53 1.77
Intelligence Young 6.00 1.69 6.13 1.13 5.87 1.30 6.13 1.36
Old 6.40 1.12 6.87 0.99 6.53 1.46 6.20 1.78
Sympathy Young 6.20 1.90 6.13 1.77 7.00 1.96 6.13 2.10
Old 5.80 2.04 5.93 1.39 6.00 1.93 5.73 2.05
Notes. Scales range from 1 (not at all) to 9 (extremely). Acrossall analyses, the three-way
interactions between background color, age of target and age of participant were not
163S. Schwarz, M. Singer / Journal of Experimental Social Psychology 49 (2013) 161–164
Röder, S., Brewer, G., & Fink, B. (2009). Menstrual cycle shifts in women's self-perception
and motivation: A daily report method. Personality and Individual Differences,47,
Schwarz,S., & Hassebrauck,M. (2008). Self-perceived and observed variations in women's
attractiveness throughout the menstrual cycle—Adiarystudy.Evolution and Human
Schwarz, S. & Hassebrauck, M. (in press). Sex and age differences in mate selection
preferences. Human Nature.http://dx.doi.org/10.1007/s12110-012-9152-x.
Swami, V., & Furnham, A. (2008). The psychology of physical attraction. London:
Watts, I. (1999). The origin of symbolic culture. In R. Dunbar (Ed.), The evolution of cul-
ture (pp. 113–146). Edinburgh: Edinburgh University Press.
164 S. Schwarz, M. Singer / Journal of Experimental Social Psychology 49 (2013) 161–164