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Seeing Red


Have you ever wondered what lies behind the expressions ‘ a red mist came over  me’ or ‘I saw red’? What does this say to us? The red flag of labour? Stop?

Like a red rag to a bull...

Whether speaking symbolically or in an accurate description of the blood vessels of the face, we  use these colour expressions to describe feelings of extreme competitiveness or anger that temporarily cloud one’s judgment.

Hill and Barton (2005) demonstrated that in the 2004 Olympic Games, those competing in red strips were regularly more successful. There appeared to be a significant advantage to the red competitors. It kind of stands to reason – red is a powerful primary colour, loaded with cultural associations, it’s a natural marker of many evolutionary elements, and it’s visually arresting, like black.

‘A black mood’ and ‘the black dog’ are used to describe conditions of anger and gloom while a typical description of depression might be ‘I felt like I was stuck in a long dark tunnel, surrounded by blackness, with no way out.’

Cultural (= variable) associations tell us that Black=Bad. But it also has meanings of sorrow, the unknown, danger, harm and death. Some of these – like funerary fashions – are highly relative but others are more universal and have their roots in ancient human survival mechanisms.

Where stimuli such as colours provoke instant responses, without any conscious thought, they are usually linked to one of the very oldest systems in our bodies  – the fight or flight mechanism  – which is controlled by our ‘reptilian’ brain. Which begs the question: how lizard like are we?

Well, 300 million years ago, primitive reptiles had a central nervous system and a very small brain stem which governed basic maintenance and fight-or-flight mechanisms. Today, one third of our modern brain operates in much the same way.

This reptilian brain is vital to sustain life and controls breathing, digestion, appetite, circulation, physical movements and defence activities for fight or flight responses.  And all these functions respond to subliminal cues – such as colour and threat – and are generally not in our conscious control.

Back in 1988, Frank and Gilovich demonstrated a link between black clad teams and dominance on the field of play.

More interestingly, perhaps, they also showed that teams wearing black gave away more penalties. This also held true when other teams switched to a black strip.

They suggest that wearing black not only increases aggression in the players themselves, so they win more matches, but that referees are biased against those players by their black strip.

They don’t necessarily explain why players are more aggressive in black, but they do propose that the bias in referee judgments comes from an association of black = bad and so creates prejudice.

So, where does that leave us? Well, the most successful team I ever played in wore a black outfit. Does that mean that we were dominant because of our clothing? I doubt it. And yet it could still be argued that the most intimidating rugby team in the world – the New Zealand All Blacks – regularly derives a points advantage from the awesome aura surrounding the all-black All Black shirt.

Apart from sport, the only other area of violence openly observable in civilian life appears to be in (or just outside) our bars, pubs and clubs. Much is made of interior design to produce harmonious productive domestic and working environments, but how much are those same mood enhancing subliminal colours judgements used to reduce violence and aggression in drinking establishments?

After all, if we know that drunkeness and alcohol-related aggression can be sparked without any actual consumption of alcohol (see yesterday’s Trolden), couldn’t we also inhibit aggression in drinking locales by changing the mood music and opting for less reptilian colours?

When considering mechanisms such as this, I am always struck by how small is that part of us humans which is modern, ethical, rational and civilised. It seems that the more we learn about evolutionary biology and neuroscience, the less we can be sure that we are very civilised at all.

Indeed, the two-thirds of our brains that are occupied with higher functions and moral judgements appears to crouch like a jockey on a runaway stallion, desperately attempting to steer while hoping to G’d that they don’t fall off in the process.


Frank, M., & Gilovich, T. (1988). The dark side of self- and social perception: Black uniforms and aggression in professional sports. Journal of Personality and Social Psychology, 54 (1), 74-85 DOI: 10.1037/0022-3514.54.1.74

Hill, R., & Barton, R. (2005). Psychology: Red enhances human performance in contests Nature, 435 (7040), 293-293 DOI: 10.1038/435293a

From → Health, Research

  1. After World War II Existentialism was big and bad – and all the players wore black …

    Great article! Gets one thinking! The white of doctors’ coats is a sign of purity that one can trust. Imagine, your doctor would enter the little cubicle where you sit more or less naked, and she is wearing – red!

    Alexa Fleckenstein M.D., physician, author.

  2. thejourneywithnoend permalink

    Good points. I always enjoy this blog!


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