Saturday, 15 November 2008

Seeing red

“It is such a joy when the world of science presents womankind with Something She Has Always Known...”

...was the opening sentence of this article in The Times. It was an article inspired by a recent study published in the Journal of Personality and Social Psychology, describing a series of experiments on the effects of the naughtiest of the colours, red.

I’m not going to go all Ben Goldacre. But not only was it quite a misrepresentation of what was actually written in the journal, but um, excuse me? Womankind? As distinct from the ‘world of science’? I feel compelled to take issue.

So, that opening sentence. I really really hate the idea that the world of science and womankind are different entities. Please. For starters the co-author and post-doctoral researcher that carried out the experiments, Daniela Niesta, is a lady.

Next, the findings of the paper are summarised:

“This week comes the revelation that females of the species who don a red frock are likely to have more money and attention lavished upon them than their less garish sisters. Hmmmn, d’ya think?”

How rude.

If one is going to be quite so disparaging about the scientific endeavours of one of their ‘sisters’ perhaps they should get their facts straight.

What the paper actually showed was that when a black and white photo of the same woman was presented on a red background rather than a blue background, the subject of the photo was rated as more attractive and more sexually desirable, more likely to be asked out on a date. These findings were replicated in a different set of experiments in which the shirt colour was manipulated.

In the actual study the photo of the woman is provocatively described as a “yearbook-like head and upper torso shot of a moderately attractive young adult woman with brown hair. She wore a striped button-down shirt and had a pleasant smile on her face”. What a minx. No red frock then.

The argument in The Times' article is that the presence of red carries certain connotations that are associated with sex, and if only they’d asked, the author could have told the “posse of menfolk” at the University of Rochester that men would rather date Mary Magdalene than the Virgin Mary.

Hmmmn, d’ya think?

Researchers tend not to be completely stupid. And believe it or not they had considered the possibility that societal associations influence the effect red has on our perceptions.

Societal use of red has a long and distinctly raunchy history. It symbolises fertility, passion and lust. We have red light districts, wear red lipstick, red underwear and consider these to be particular indicators of sex. See The Times article for more. If you squint, the article starts to look like a list of Things That Are Red.

The point is, why do we see red this way? The argument put forward by these experiments is that our societal use has roots in our biology. Nonhuman female primates display red on their genitals, perineum, chest or face when nearing ovulation.

There is a general consensus that in the animal kingdom, displaying red indicates elevated estrogen (which enhances blood flow under the skin) and represents a sexual signal that attracts males.

To test which force was greater here, everyday associations with red, or a more fundamental drive, the researchers did several things. First, they asked the participants. After the experiment, they asked the participants what they felt had influence their decision. Colour, the woman’s facial expression, the way the woman was dressed. Colour came bottom.

Secondly, they also included women as participants. When the women were making the judgements, there was no effect of red whatsoever. Also the effects of red on men were very specific, and had no influence on judgements of less exciting dimensions such as the woman’s general likeability, kindness or intelligence.

Ok, so it’s not a cure for cancer. But it’s an interesting and quite well designed study and I’m not sure articles like that are helpful to either the menfolk in the world of science, or womankind.

Fig. 1. Michelle Obama looking utterly stunning in a magnificent red dress. Would you want to date this woman?

1 comment:

Barbara Bruederlin said...

She looks pretty good, but I'll stick to dating her husband.

Isn't it infuriating when the popular press gets ahold of a scientific study and completely misinterprets the results for sensationalism?