Friday, October 31, 2008

Lady in Red

Here's how to become invisible to men: Turn 35 and have a baby or two. (Never mind the MILF stereotype; an actual real live baby is not generally a major attractant to random men.)

Here's how to become visible to men again: Clothe yourself in red.

Or so say scientists at the University of Rochester who've found evidence that men are more attracted to women who are either clad in or surrounded by the color red.
To quantify the red effect, the study looked at men's responses to photographs of women under a variety of color presentations. In one experiment, test subjects looked at a woman's photo framed by a border of either red or white and answered a series of questions, such as: "How pretty do you think this person is?" Other experiments contrasted red with gray, green, or blue.

When using chromatic colors like green and blue, the colors were precisely equated in saturation and brightness levels, explained [researcher Daniela] Niesta. "That way the test results could not be attributed to differences other than hue."

In the final study, the shirt of the woman in the photograph, instead of the background, was digitally colored red or blue. In this experiment, men were queried not only about their attraction to the woman, but their intentions regarding dating. One question asked: "Imagine that you are going on a date with this person and have $100 in your wallet. How much money would you be willing to spend on your date?"

Under all of the conditions, the women shown framed by or wearing red were rated significantly more attractive and sexually desirable by men than the exact same women shown with other colors. When wearing red, the woman was also more likely to score an invitation to the prom and to be treated to a more expensive outing.

The red effect extends only to males and only to perceptions of attractiveness. Red did not increase attractiveness ratings for females rating other females and red did not change how men rated the women in the photographs in terms of likability, intelligence or kindness.

(See the whole press release here.)
So I'll go out on a limb here and say yes, independent Kittywampus research confirms this. Of course, our scientific standards are low - one data point will do ya - as befits the walnut-sized feline brain.

When I was on my way to the Berkshire Conference last summer, I experienced something that hadn't happened to me since my kids were born. I had a middle seat on the airplane. On either side of me were attractive men in their early to mid fifties. Both seemed interested in flirting with me. Not that I was looking for it - and mind you, I was on my way to a conference with 99% female attendees, so even if I'd been single, I doubt I would have been in that mode. But it was interesting and, okay, gratifying to not be invisible.

It's funny; when you're young, unwanted male attention ranges from annoying to threatening, but when it disappears altogether, that too is a harsh insult.

So maybe it's just that I'm a veritable man magnet (ha!) and my superpowers were unleashed as soon as I didn't have my two kids in tow.

Or maybe it's that I was wearing red. This combination, to be precise, which includes some of those nice yellows that attract garden pests (and that the researchers apparently didn't test).

(Bear in mind, I wasn't doing my fake ballerina pose on the plane.)

For what it's worth, my two young sons love this red and gold combination too, so maybe the red preference starts really early, in that stage of childhood innocence where they just know they love bright colors, and they love their old mama, and the two things together are irresistible.

So I'm on board with the University of Rochester scientists' findings. But I really balked at how they were reported in the media. The report I initially read - from WTAE in Pittsburgh - said this, again echoing the press release:
"Our research demonstrates a parallel in the way that human and nonhuman male primates respond to red," they wrote. "In doing so, our findings confirm what many women have long suspected and claimed: that men act like animals in the sexual realm. As much as men might like to think that they respond to women in a thoughtful, sophisticated manner, it appears that at least to some degree, their preferences and predilections are, in a word, primitive."

(From the report at WTAE Pittsburgh.)
Ha! We knew it! Men are just beasts!

(Sigh. Deep, exasperated, frustrated sigh.)

Look. I'm plenty willing to believe that men are animals. I'm just not willing to believe that women are somehow higher. Put women up on a pedestal, and we're guaranteed to fall down.

I was all ready to blame the scientists for signing on to these assumptions when I decided to track down the original study, which appears in the latest Journal of Personality and Social Psychology (full text available for a fee here; I used my library access). Their article shows that the university's public relations people and the media share the blame for catering to stereotypes, while the scientists appear to have been scrupulously evenhanded:
As much as men might like to think that they respond to women in a thoughtful, sophisticated manner, it appears that at least to some degree, their preferences and predilections are, in a word, primitive. Women, however, may have little room for phylogenetic pride, as it is possible that they respond to male red in a manner similar to that of nonhuman female primates. In several species of primate, red is displayed most prominently in dominant males (Setchell & Dixson, 2001), and females appear to be particularly attracted to male conspecifics showing red (Darwin, 1874; Waitt et al., 2003). Interestingly, women find dominant men highly attractive (Rainville & Gallagher, 1990; Sadalla, Kenrick, & Vershure, 1987), especially during ovulation (Gangestad, Simpson, Cousins, Garver-Apgar, & Christensen, 2004), and it may be that women perceive red on men as a dominance cue with amorous implications. We have recently begun to examine the question of women’s response to a “gentleman in red” (which, it is important to reiterate, is independent of the question of men’s response to a “lady in red”) and have acquired preliminary evidence that a display of red on a man indeed increases his attractiveness to women. Thus, at least with regard to red and sex, it seems that neither men nor women will be able to rightfully claim the evolutionary high road.

(Andrew J. Elliot and Daniela Niesta, "Romantic Red: Red Enhances Men’s Attraction to Women," Journal of Personality and Social Psychology 2008, Vol. 95, No. 5, 1150–1164; quotation from p. 1161)
In other words, we're all animals. I'm cool with that.

In fact, I'd love to see the researchers take a closer look at women's affinity for pink and purple. Sure, those are classic sparkle pony and Barbie colors. But in us hairless mammals at the top of the food chain, aren't pink and purple also sex colors par excellance?

Just coincidentally, my husband is wearing a red fleece jacket this evening. Yum ...


Lisa said...

The amount of biological determinism that has persisted in popular science writing is astounding. Physiology certainly has an effect on one's behavior, but it doesn't dictate one's actions.

Sungold said...

Hi Lisa! What I found striking was how the press release already set up the media for reporting the same-old, same-old. The scientists may well have expressed some mild bias by looking first at "what attracts men" instead of starting with women. If so, they were following in a long tradition of evolutionary psychology assuming that men are "more visual" than women. But overall they insisted that we're all basically beasts, and you'd never know that if you didn't have (free) access to the full text of the original journal article.

I just visited your blog and saw that we're neighbors but I don't *think* I know you in real life. Or did you ever take WS100 from me? :-) At any rate, have fun this weekend!