Seeing Red

How the color of passion, romance, and anger can influence behavior

At 5 o’clock in the morning on Wednesday, February 8th, 1587, Mary Stuart lay fully dressed on her four-poster bed in Fotheringhay Castle in eastern England. Around her were her ladies-in-waiting, Jane Kennedy and Elizabeth Curle, who had both donned black mourning clothes. Outside, Mary could hear the hammering from the scaffold being erected. The 44-year-old had been imprisoned for 18 and a half years. Later that day, she would be put to death for the attempted assassination of Queen Elizabeth I.

Shortly after 6 a.m., Mary was roused from her bed and led to the top of wooden platform of the scaffold. She prayed in Latin and English for the Catholic Church, then for her son, and finally for Queen Elizabeth. Throughout it all, she was elaborately dressed. “Her satin dress was all in black, embroidered with black velvet and set with black acorn buttons of jet trimmed with pearl,” historian Antonia Fraser writes in her biography Mary Queen of Scots.

Moments before she was to be executed, Mary asked if her ladies-in-waiting could remove her black dress. At first, the executioner demurred, but when she asked again he allowed it. Beneath her black dress, she was wearing all red: a crimson velvet petticoat, sleeves, and satin bodice, matching her auburn hair.

In many ways, the color red would be the lasting symbol that Mary Stuart, or Mary Queen of Scots, left behind.

Red has a long historical symbolism, from good fortune in Chinese culture to the eroticism in Amsterdam’s red-light district. In the case of Mary Queen of Scots, red was “the liturgical color of martyrdom in the Catholic Church,” explains Fraser. Through a simple color choice, she established her legacy.

But the symbolism of the color red also permeates our lives in more subtle ways. In fact, research has shown that it may have the power to influence our psyches, desires, and behaviors.

For starters, there may be some truth to the notion that red is the sexiest color. In one 2012 study, psychologist Nicolas Guéguen, a researcher at the Université de Bretagne-Sud in Lorient, France, found that wearing red made women appear more attractive to men and implied greater sexual intent. After controlling for attractiveness, Guéguen discovered that men significantly overestimated women’s interest in sex when viewing photographs of women dressed in red, as opposed to pictures of those wearing blue, green, or white. In another study from 2010, when women looked at photos of men in red shirts or on a red background, they tended to rank those men as more sexually attractive and of a higher social status than men in white shirts or on a gray background.

But it wasn’t just in photos that red made a difference. Another one of Guéguen’s studies found that waitresses wearing red received between 14.6 percent and 26.1 percent higher tips than their white-wearing counterparts. (The color change had no effect on how female diners tipped, which mainly goes to show that men seem to think a few extra dollars will win that beautiful waitress’ heart.) And the perceived sexiness of red stretches beyond clothing, too: Guéguen also found that when women wore red lipstick in a bar on the French coast, they were hit on significantly more quickly and more frequently than their peers with more natural-colored lips.

Many researchers believe that part of red’s power may be evolutionary: Slightly redder skin implies good circulation, which in turn implies greater health and reproductive fitness. Our brains might be reading the same signals from clothes, so that people who wear red appear healthier and therefore better mates.

It seems fitting, then, that the animalistic red may also translate into higher levels of aggression and physical prowess. Tae kwon doe competitors who wore red outfits at the Athens Olympics in 2004, for example, won five percent more bouts than competitors wearing blue—a significant difference in a competition like the Olympics, where the margin of victory is razor-thin.

The aggression translated to gambling as well. One 2012 study, for example, found that people playing with red poker chips tended to make bigger, riskier bets than those playing with white.

Conversely, though, red has also been linked to “avoidance motivation,” or a heightened desire to avoid failure. In a 2007 study, Andrew Elliot, a psychology professor at the University of Rochester, administered exams bound in different-colored packets. He found that when given the choice between answering an easy question with a low payoff or a moderately difficult question with a higher payoff, people with red packets tended to go for the easy question, while those with packets of other colors more frequently chose the moderately difficult questions—and, as a result, those with red scored significantly worse.

“Our research shows not only that avoidance motivation can be activated subtly, but that it can operate subtly as well,” Elliot writes. “Participants neither expressed … nor exhibited … any conscious awareness of the influence of color on their motivation or performance.” In other words, no one participating in his study realized they were responding negatively to the color red.

Mary Queen of Scots, however, may have known exactly how much power it held. After she took off her black garments to reveal her red petticoat, sleeves, and bodice, she was beheaded. The executioner raised her severed head up to those watching and said, “God save the Queen.” But then something unexpected happened: An auburn red wig fell off the head. Mary’s real hair color was grey. Red was only a disguise.