Scientists’ Love Affair with Red and Pink

Bobby Miller

We’re so careful when deciding which color to paint a new room, right down the exact shade we want. Many products, whether they’re pocket-sized smartphones or biggie-sized trucks, come in a variety of colors. And that’s because we all associate colors with a variety of meanings and feelings. In so many cases, a color isn’t just pretty, it’s a statement.

Common Color Connections

Some of the meanings associated with colors are deeply rooted in real objects. A website called “The Global Color Survey” found that, worldwide, people usually associate gold with expensive, high-quality objects. Since the precious metal is obviously gold-colored, this connection has probably been around for millennia.

Other common color associations require a little more thinking, but they still make sense on a basic human level. For example, people consider yellow a “happy color,” which may have its roots in the sun that sustains life. Black, on the other hand, is often associated with death and mourning, which may refer to how the day “dies” at night.

Such associations often transcend cultures. For example, even Turkish folk literature associates black with death, mourning, bad luck, and evil. In contrast, white usually signifies goodness, purity, and reverence for the divine. This imagery is commonly found in depictions of the afterlife, where Heaven is an angelic white and Hell a dark realm.

Nvate color associations scientific pink and red color connections

Whether you look at creatures from a contemporary video game like “Sonic Adventure 2” or a classic painting like Octave Tassaert’s “Heaven and Hell,” you can often find good and evil contrasted by white and black colors.
Credit: Famous-Artists.net and Sonic.Wikia.com

Psychologists Gary Sherman and Gerald Clore of the University of Virginia fear this color dichotomy could contribute to racism that white people are “good” and black people are “bad.” However, ironically enough, the Nexus Zine reported that many African cultures associate white with kindness and black with malevolence.

Specifically, the Hausa culture of Nigeria, Sudan, Cameroon, Ghana, Cote d’Ivorie, and Chad use the word “fari” to mean white and good. “To have a white heart is to be equable, happy, and rejoicing,” the blog explained. “To have white blood is to be popular; to have a white stomach is to be happy.”

Other color associations are more arbitrary and thus more likely to change among cultures. For instance, portions of the world deeply influenced by the Bible often associate red with evil. The New International Version translation of Isaiah 1:18 reads, “Though your sins are like scarlet, they shall be as white as snow; though they are red as crimson, they shall be like wool.” China, on the other hand, associates red with good luck.

Even in a certain culture, one color might take on many different meanings, some of which may contradict each other. Black, for example, isn’t always a deathly color, but rather one of authority. After all, there’s a reason why black business suits are so common. And getting back to red, it’s not always an evil color either. Sometimes it’s associated with power, liveliness, and even sex.

Love like a Red, Red Rose

In fact, red has received a tremendous amount of attention in psychological studies since it carries so much significance. Social psychologists Daniela Kayser, Andrew Elliot, and Roger Feltman note that the color red is important even among non-human primates. Female baboons and chimps show red on their chests and genitals when they’re going into heat, and this color makes them more attractive to males.

Even though women don’t go into heat and turn red, men are still aroused by the color in certain contexts. These psychologists conducted two experiments. In the first one, they found that men were more likely to sit closer to a woman wearing a red shirt as opposed to when she was wearing a blue shirt. In the second experiment, the researchers found that men asked more intimate questions to a red-shirted woman than to a green-shirted one. This finding could help women’s dating lives as well as fashion companies who are trying to achieve a sexy tone with their advertising.

Nvate color associations scientific pink and red color connections

Although these dresses are shaped the same, the red one may give off a more luscious feel.
Credit: SavingTheSavvyWay.com

Other research supports these findings. Working with Adam Pazda, Elliot also examined how women dress on various dating websites. They looked at singles in the New York City area in order to receive an ethnically diverse sample. They found that women were over two and a half times more likely to wear red on a website devoted to short-term hookups than on a website devoted to long-term relationships.

The researchers warn that luscious red dresses may even give men the wrong impression, since it’s not as if all women wearing red are looking for quick hookups. Red attire may even send the wrong message to other women. “A woman’s red clothing may convey to other proximate females that she is a noteworthy competitor who is actively pursuing a partner in the mating marketplace,” they added.

Putting People on Red Alert

Ironically enough, while red embodies sexual invitation in some contexts, it can also give off an intimidating or repelling effect in other cases. The subtle undertones of red as a threatening color resonate even in Japan, whose national flag is a big red dot. Psychologists Ayumi Tanaka and Yuki Tokuno conducted an experiment where students were told that they had to complete 10 analogies. The students themselves were allowed to choose whether they received easy or difficult ones.

The results showed that students picked the fewest difficult analogies if the experimenter wore a red shirt. If the experimenter wore a white shirt instead, the students felt more at ease and thus more willing to pick more difficult analogies. And if the experimenter donned a green shirt, whose color is often associated with life and peace, the students felt relaxed enough to pick even more difficult tasks.

Nvate color associations scientific pink and red color connections

A number of video games even use red to label the most challenging difficulty, as if warning novices to stay away.

On a similar note, one recent study noted that students are intimidated by grading that is done with red ink. The study found that students really should be scared of red pens: they bring out a teacher’s vicious side.

Researchers Abraham Rutchick, Michael Slepian, and Bennett Ferris asked study participants to mark errors in an essay and then give it a grade. The people using red pens marked more errors and gave out lower grades than people using black pens. Teachers should be aware that switching pen colors while grading a stack of papers gives some students a small, but notable, advantage over others.

Paint the Auction Red

Red can, however, be used to a person’s advantage if they’re auctioning something off. In a consumer research study, Rajesh Bagchi and Amar Cheema analyzed used Nintendo Wii gaming consoles being auctioned on eBay. They all had the same starting bid, description, condition, and so on. All that changed was the background color behind each device’s photo.

When the Nintendo Wii was depicted against a blue background, the average bidder went $35 over the previous bid. However, when the console was depicted against a red background, the average bidder went $63 over the previous bid. This shows that red made the bidders more aggressive, trying to slap each other across the face with a much higher offer.

A red background should not be used in cases of direct sales, however. In the same study, Bagchi and Cheema asked participants to imagine that they were looking for a vacation package to go to South Beach, Fla. After looking at some information and pictures, they were asked how much they would be willing to pay.

When the pictures of the hotel, beach, and other areas were shown against a blue background, the average participant was willing to pay $712. However, when the pictures were placed against a red background, the average participant was only willing to pay $684. A 4 percent decrease in profits may not sound like much, but it’s silly to lose money over something as simple as background color. The researchers speculate that while red helps auctions by making bidders aggressive against each other, red harms direct sales because they make buyers aggressive toward the seller.

So, red is clearly an influential color due to people’s associations with it. However they must refrain from overestimating its power or from thinking that all usage of red is some conspiracy to manipulate. After all, connections to any color varies greatly by context. That’s why Elmo usually doesn’t stir up aggression or arousal in people.

How We Tickled Girls Pink

Another color that has been the subject of numerous research studies is pink. Although pink is often considered a gentle, feminine color, it can stir up some red-hot debates over how American culture reinforces gender dichotomies.

But first, why is pink associated with females, particularly young ones? After all, various studies have shown that infants of either gender tend to prefer blue over all the other colors, yet blue has been assigned to boys.

It turns out that the pink and blue dichotomy is entirely artificial and random. According to WiseGeek.com, neither color was associated with a specific gender before the 1940s. In fact, one magazine even had the opposite dichotomy in mind. The author told parents to dress baby boys in pink because it was a “more decided and stronger color.” This same magazine recommended blue for girls because it is such a “delicate and dainty” color.

No one is entirely sure how this dichotomy reversed to make pink the “girl color,” but there are some theories floating around. According to author Jo B. Paoletti’s book “Pink and Blue: Telling the Girls from the Boys in America,” the association may have its roots in how a study found that men across cultures usually prefer “cool colors” while women usually prefer “warm colors.”

It’s also possible that the Nazis helped turn pink into a feminine color. Jews in Nazi Germany were forced to wear a badge with two superimposed yellow triangles so that they could be easily identified. However, many other styles of badges existed. A homosexual man had to wear a badge with a pink triangle—though lesbians wore a black one. Since homosexual men are often stereotyped as feminine, the color pink may have come to be seen as feminine too. This would explain why the color’s girly label arose not long after World War II.

Color-Coding Boys and Girls

Even though most people are unaware of how the stereotypes behind pink arose, that doesn’t stop parents from dressing their daughters in pink. In 1985, psychologists Madeline Shakin, Debra Shakin, and Sarah Sternglanz observed parents and their infants at various suburban shopping malls.

Nvate color associations scientific pink and red color connections

When so many clothes and toys for girls are pink, it’s inevitable that they associate the color with girlhood.
Credit: PoshNicki.WordPress.com

They found that 75 percent of infant girls were dressed in pink, whereas 79 percent of infant boys were clothed in blue. In the interviews they conducted, the researchers found that most parents wouldn’t mind if a stranger identified their infant’s sex incorrectly, so it’s not as if they were consciously labeling their child’s gender based on color.

Regardless, youngsters themselves quickly associate blue with boys and pink with girls. Even though most infants of either gender prefer blue, psychologists Vanessa LoBue and Judy DeLoache found that girls two and a half years or older have already “developed a significant preference for pink over other colors.” At the same time, boys aged only two years old already begin avoiding pink, as if there’s something wrong with a male enjoying the color. This experiment was conducted not too long ago—in 2011—so it’s not as if color-coding gender is a thing of the past.

And judging by how seriously preschoolers take these color labels, the dichotomy isn’t going away anytime soon. Martha Picariello and her team of child development researchers from Wellesley College presented preschoolers with stuffed animals that looked identical, save for their color. The pink stuffed animals were girls, and the blue stuffed animals were boys, according to the youngsters.

Does Pink Stink?

Since American culture has deeply associated pink with stereotypical girlhood and feminine men, the color sometimes evokes intense responses from people. For example, according to QCTimes.com, the University of Iowa painted its visitors’ football locker rooms pink, hoping the gentle color would make them less aggressive on the field. Some gender justice and gay rights groups have interpreted this as a means of using pink to insult the opposing team’s masculinity.

Nvate color associations scientific pink and red color connections

Perhaps this locker room is meant to look like a little girl’s room to insult the opposing team.
Credit: QCTimes.com

Other questionable acts include forcing prison inmates into pink facilities or even into pink clothing as a “shaming” method of punishment. This not only gives the color pink an undeserved bad reputation, but also furthers gender dichotomies through color-coding.

This affects grown women as well. Jeffery Smith, Paul Bell, and Marc Fusco, a group of psychologists from Colorado State University, looked at how the color pink affected a person’s strength. Specifically, female participants in their study had to squeeze a pink handgrip as tightly as possible. The experimenters said nothing about the color to one group, but they told other participants that making the handgrip pink tends to weaken people.

Interestingly enough, when women were told that the handgrip’s pink color would somehow weaken them, they actually squeezed it more tightly—more tightly than the group who was told nothing about the color having any effect. So, it’s as if the women in the study felt the need to show their strength even more when the stereotypically feminine color was associated with weakness.

And even stranger, men were entirely receptive to what the experimenters said. If a male participant heard that pink, a warm color, could strengthen people, he usually squeezed the handgrip more tightly. And if a male participant heard that pink, a feminine color, could weaken people, he usually squeezed the handgrip less tightly. It’s as if the men in the study felt no need to prove anything about the color pink.

It’s amazing that just two colors, red and pink, have garnered so much attention in the scientific community. While we sometimes think that color is just a matter of preference or making things look appealing, the associations we carry with color run deep in the human conscience.

Next month, we will examine how individuals and businesses can use a wide spectrum of colors for purposes including branding and therapy.

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