TIME psychology

Study: Women View Other Women Wearing Red as a Sexual Threat

They believe scarlet-clad women are looking for a little romance, given half a chance

The ballad “The Lady in Red” was released in 1986 by the singer Chris de Burgh, to widespread acclaim; the pop ballad was massively successful, reaching the top position on the charts in Canada, the UK, Ireland, and Norway, while peaking at #3 in the U.S.

De Burgh’s lyrics—e.g., “I’ve never seen so many men ask you if you wanted to dance/They’re looking for a little romance, given half a chance/And I have never seen that dress you’re wearing”—depict a wonderfully special night, and he’s stated publicly that the song was inspired by the first time he saw his future wife.

In the past, psychological research has found that men perceive women wearing red (like de Burgh’s lady) as more sexually receptive, due to the “biologically based predisposition to receive red as a sexual signal”. Recently, a companion study has been published that documents how women perceive other women wearing red—as it turns out, the color has a similar effect.

The research team, led by University of Rochester psychologist Adam Pazda, conducted three experiments to find out how, exactly, women respond. Here’s how they did it, via Pacific Standard:

Pazda and his colleagues describe three experiments conducted on two different continents that provide evidence that wearing red sets off certain alarm bells. In the first, 196 women recruited online viewed a photo of “a moderately attractive women in her late 20s.”

Half saw an image of her wearing a white dress; the rest viewed an otherwise identical image of her in a red dress. Afterwards, all responded on a sliding scale to a series of statements such as “This person is interested in sex.”

As expected, the woman was seen as more sexually receptive if she was wearing red. This held true whether or not the study participants were in a committed relationship.

Fascinating stuff. Pazda and his colleagues found another effect—that the women who were exposed to the photo of the woman wearing red engaged in “mate-guarding” and “derogation”; in other words, they were more likely to speak negatively about the woman wearing red (“I would guess that this women cheats on men”, “I would guess that this woman has no money”, etc.) and more likely to protect their significant others from her. Here’s Pacific Standard:

Another experiment featured 143 women enrolled at two Slovakian universities. They, too, looked at a photo of a woman in her 20s; she was wearing either a red or green shirt. Afterwards, they were asked to rate not only her interest in sex, but were asked “How likely would you be to introduce this person to your boyfriend?”

Those who viewed her in the red shirt rated the woman as “more sexually receptive,” and “reported stronger intentions to guard their mate from the target,” the researchers report.

De Burgh’s song didn’t speak about the other women in the room—if it had, he might have told a different story.

 

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