20 April 2012

Red returns: What women wear for wild times?

ResearchBlogging.orgNote: This paper in this post is also being covered by the mighty Scicurious in her weekly Friday Weird Science!

Last week, I wrote about women and red. To recap: Men think that women wearing red look smokin’ hawt. (That’s the technical term.)

There’s a lot of questions you can ask about that fact. Last week's paper tried to figure out if red was sexy because it reminded men of the colour of female sex organs. (No.) Another question, tested here, is whether women use red to show their interest in sex.

This new paper by Elliot and Pazda has some similarities to the hypothesis of the previous paper. The authors imply that red is a sexual signal because of biology more than culture. The paper's first sentence is:

Females in many primate species, such as baboons and chimpanzees, display red on their body (e.g., chest, genitalia) near ovulation.

(Because of lead time, Elliot and Pazda don’t mention the paper from last week. They couldn't have known that the “red makes men think of women’s sex organs” hypothesis was not supported.)

The authors did three studies, all online. But I am frustrated by a lot of missing details. The authors mention their own website, and other existing “dating websites,” and we aren’t told anything else about them.

See, here's the thing. The Internet? It's a big place. (I live in Texas. “Big” is kind of a local obsession.) If you want to argue that the effects you’re seeing are biological rather than cultural, we need to know something about the particular websites used. What was the primary language of the website, for instance? I’m almost willing to bet that these were English language sites based in the United States.

That sort of detail could make a big difference in the strength of the interpretation. It’s hard to rule out or control for confounding factors, particularly good old culture (as Sci notes). This research would be much stronger if it had a cross-cultural component. For instance, in China, red is associated with good fortune... and I don’t mean “getting lucky.” Elliot and Pazda do note that they had a mix of ethnic groups in their first experiment, but not their nation of origin.

In the first experiment, they asked women hypothetically what they would show in a profile pic on a dating website, and varied the instructions as to whether there is a mention of casual sex or not. When casual sex was mentioned, “red” was the most popular colour chosen by women, and it was was a significantly more common choice than when casual sex was not mentioned. Blue was the most common colour when casual sex wasn’t mentioned.

Things get more complicated on the existing, functioning dating websites. On these websites, most women were wearing black – more than red and blue and green combined. Those women who indicated an interest in casual sex were more likely to be wearing red in their picture, which is consistent with the hypothesis. But the popularity of black doesn’t make for a straightforward interpretation.

Maybe these were dating sites for goths?

We just don’t know!

In the discussion, Eliot and Pazda do add nuance. They still seem to favour a biological interpretation of their results, with some references to primate literature. They admit, however, that they can’t rule out the cultural explanations. They also talk about whether red is simply a signal to men, or whether it is also intended as a signal to other women (that is, potential competitors).

I do find it odd that this paper frames its discussion from a heterosexual perspective. There is no speculating on whether red would be used by people of other orientations in the same way. This seems a curious omission, because Elliot and Pazda mention that their first two studies contained women who identified themselves as bisexual.

Maybe I’ve been spoiled. Frankly, OK Cupid did this kind of stuff better. Their OKTrends blog posts were often much more detailed and rich than this paper, and I’d love to have seen them tackle this question. I imagine they wouldn’t just have data on what the women wore, but they’d have data on how often men responded to those profile pics where women wore red. And how gay women responded to pics with red. And bi women. And so on.

I’d like to know how women wearing red would answer, “Do you like the taste of beer?

Now that you’ve reached the end of my post, don’t forget to read Scicurious!

Additional: Also covered at The View from Helicon.


Elliot A, Pazda A. 2012. Dressed for sex: red as a female sexual signal in humans. PLoS ONE 7(4): e34607. DOI: 10.1371/journal.pone.0034607

1 comment:

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