Q: I know I should dress for my complexion and the circumstances, but are there certain colors that can make me look better in general? Also, is attractiveness about how others perceive me, or about how I perceive myself?
A: Research suggests that certain colors “pack a punch” when it comes to attractiveness, and other colors tend to look less attractive in general. But even more interesting is the finding that this effect occurs not only in the perceivers but the wearers of those colors.
In a study published in the journal Evolutionary Psychology in 2010, some researchers wanted to know whether certain colors were generally perceived as more attractive on people than others.
In this study, the researchers got 20 Caucasian undergraduate students aged 18-22 (half men, half women) to wear six different color t-shirts under standard lighting conditions. The colors were:
The 60 resulting photographs were shown to 30 opposite-sex raters on a screen in random order. The raters were instructed to rate the attractiveness of each picture on a 10-point scale (1 = not very attractive, 10 = very attractive).
When Females rated Males, Red and Black were rated as more attractive than the other colors.
In descending order (from most to least attractive), the colors were rated this way: Red, Black, Blue, Green, Yellow, and White. White was the least attractive.
The researchers didn’t stop there. They wanted to know exactly what was going on. There are two possibilities:
- The first possibility is that Red and Black just look better on people than the other colors, and that Green, Yellow, and White just didn’t look as good on people.
- The second possibility is that Red and Black made the wearer feel more attractive, and that this effect changed how confident they felt. As a result, this confidence showed up on their faces (people who felt more attractive displayed more attractive facial expressions).
To test which of these possibilities is true, the researchers did a second study where the color of the t-shirt was digitally altered.
- This way, the wearer’s facial expression has to be the same every time. The only thing that changes is the color of the t-shirt.
- Once again, raters rated the pictures according to how attractive they looked.
- This time, the color of the t-shirt still made a difference.
- When Females rated Males, Red and Black were still rated as the most attractive colors, and Yellow was rated as the least attractive (Blue, Green, and White were somewhere in the middle).
- When Males rated other Males, Red and Black were once again rated as most attractive, and Yellow and White were rated as least attractive.
Does that settle the question? Not quite. To be sure, the researchers did a final study. This one is a bit mind-blowing.
The pictures from the first study were shown again (where one person would put on 6 different colored t-shirts and have his picture taken in each).
- Only this time, a black rectangle obscured the color of the shirt. Only the person’s facial expression was shown.
- This time, the raters are simply rating the attractiveness of the facial expression (without knowing what color they were actually wearing).
- Color of shirt still made a difference (but not as big of a difference).
- When Females rated Males, Red, Black, Blue, and Green were rated as basically equally attractive. However, Yellow and White were still rated as less attractive.
- When Males rated other Males, all the colors were basically the same except White, which was rated as less attractive.
- Remember, the raters can’t see the color of the shirts – they are simply rating the person’s facial expression while wearing the shirts.
What does all this tell us about the effects of various colors on perceptions of attractiveness?
First, it tells us that Red and Black are generally considered more attractive on men (at least on White men).
- The researchers suggest that this is tied to evolutionary associations (Red and Black suggest dominance and are associated with fertility and mating).
- The researchers also point out that this effect can’t be the result of people just preferring Black and Red over other colors. In other studies, the majority of people all over the world generally rate their favorite color as Blue.
- Think about how often you see a male politician in a debate wearing a Black suit and a Red tie. These colors communicate dominance, attractiveness, and aggressiveness – the exact message you want to send in a debate with a political opponent.
Second, it shows us that part of the effect is on the wearer.
- When a man is wearing a more attractive, dominant color and feeling more confident, this will show up on his face (and this will make him more attractive to men and women).
- When a man is wearing a more submissive, less attractive color, he will feel less confident and therefore look less attractive.
Possibly, this could mean that a man will look more attractive in whatever color he feels confident in, though we’d need another study to show that for sure.
Roberts, S. C., Owen, R. C., & Havlicek, J. (2010). Distinguishing between perceiver and wearer effects in clothing color-associated attributions. Evolutionary Psychology, 8(3), 350-364.