Men in red: A reexamination of the red-attractiveness effectby Vera M. Hesslinger, Lisa Goldbach, Claus-Christian Carbon

Psychonomic Bulletin & Review





Men in red: A reexamination of the red-attractiveness effect

Vera M. Hesslinger1,2,3 & Lisa Goldbach2,4 &

Claus-Christian Carbon2,3,5

Published online: 17 June 2015 # Psychonomic Society, Inc. 2015

Abstract Elliot, Kayser, Greitemeyer, Lichtenfeld,

Gramzow, Maier, and Liu (Journal of Experimental Psychology: General, 139(3), 399-417, 2010) showed that presenting men in front of a red background or with a red shirt enhances their attractiveness, sexual desirability, and status in the eyes of female observers. The purpose of the present research was to gain further insights concerning the robustness and the ecological validity of this red effect. In two experiments, we replicated the basic paradigm used by Elliot et al. Experiment 1 was a close replication of the first experiment in their original series. We presented the photo of a young man used by Elliot et al. on either a red or white background and asked participants (N = 89, female subsample n = 72) to rate it with regard to perceived attractiveness. Experiment 2 (N = 32) represents a somewhat more complex version of the first experiment; we increased the variance of the stimuli by showing photos of multiple men wearing different apparel styles (formal and casual, respectively). We did not find any significant impact of red in either of the studies. What we found, however, was a significant effect of apparel style with attractiveness ratings being higher for men wearing formal apparel than for men wearing casual apparel. Our results question the robustness and the ecological validity of Elliot et al.’s finding. On a more general level, they further point to limitations arising from (often necessary) restrictions in experimental designs.

Keywords Replication . Color . Attractiveness . Red effect .


Elliot et al. (2010) presented a series of experiments suggesting that the color red enhances male attractiveness and sexual desirability as perceived by women. They further presented evidence suggesting that this effect is mediated by an increase in perceived status. Basically, all seven experiments reported by Elliot et al. followed the same between-subjects design.

Participants viewed the photo of a male target person whom they had to judge with regard to different variables, such as “perceived attractiveness,” “sexual attraction,” and “perceived status” (original variable labels used by Elliot et al.). The color of the background (Experiments 1-3) or the depicted man’s shirt (Experiments 4-7), respectively, was manipulated as being either red or a contrasting color, e.g., white (see Table 1 for further details on the specific experiments). An enhancing effect of red was found in five of five experiments for perceived attractiveness and in three of three experiments for sexual attraction (note: in some experiments, more than one dependent variable was used). The mediation of the red effect via an increase in status could be further demonstrated in all three experiments where this variable was addressed via two different approaches: 1) the experimental-causal-chain approach, and 2) the measurement-of-mediation approach.

The accumulated results of Elliot et al. (2010) seem strikingly convincing at first sight as the authors were repeatedly

Presented in part at the 37th European Conference on Visual Perception (ECVP), Belgrade, Serbia, August 24-28, 2014. * Vera M. Hesslinger 1 Abteilung Allgemeine Experimentelle Psychologie, University of

Mainz, Mainz, Germany 2 Department of General Psychology and Methodology, University of

Bamberg, Markusplatz 3, D-96047 Bamberg, Germany 3 Forschungsgruppe EPÆG, Ergonomie, Psychologische Aesthetik und Gestaltung, Bamberg, Germany 4 University of Mannheim, Mannheim, Germany 5 Bamberg Graduate School of Affective and Cognitive Sciences (BaGrACS), Bamberg, Germany

Psychon Bull Rev (2015) 22:1142–1148

DOI 10.3758/s13423-015-0866-8 able to replicate their finding that a simple change in background or apparel color may have a strong and reliable impact on whether women classify a man as being attractive and sexually desirable or not. However, this flawless series of replications also turns out to be problematic as, in consideration of the estimated power of the experiments, it might indicate a publication bias in the reported, and thus accessible, results (Francis, 2013). In addition, the findings of Elliot et al. may indeed be generalizable to a certain extent (they tested participants from four countries, manipulated the color of two different features, and used four different contrasting colors); however, they lack ecological validity for a couple of reasons.

First, in exclusively focusing on the impact of color, Elliot et al. neglect further important factors or features, such as apparel style (cf., for instance, Hill, Nocks, & Gardner, 1987; McDermott & Pettijohn II, 2011) that also may (or to a greater extent than color) affect a person’s perceived attractiveness, sexual desirability, and status in real life. Second, in each of the reported experiments only one photo of a moderately attractiveman was presented to the participants, and over the complete series of experiments photos of only six different male targets were used. Being thus restricted, the stimulus material does not closely reflect the variability of physical appearance found in reality. So, it is unknown whether the enhancing effect of red is restricted to a medium base level of attractiveness, and it remains unclear whether the red effect will still be found if processes of comparison that typically occur in everyday interpersonal encounters take place (e.g., different kinds of context effects, Geiselman, Haight, &

Kimata, 1984; Gerger, Leder, Faerber, & Carbon, 2011;

Kenrick & Gutierres, 1980).

In the present research, we addressed some of the problems mentioned above and reexamined the red effect as reported by

Elliot et al. (2010). We tested the robustness of the red effect and aimed to attain further insights concerning its ecological validity. We conducted two experiments replicating the basic paradigm employed by Elliot et al. to test the effect of red on perceived attractiveness and perceived status: Experiment 1 is a close replication of the first experiment in Elliot et al.’s original series with the stimulus material and the operationalization of