Q: Research seems to suggest that the colors we wear may influence how we are perceived. How does black clothing affect how people see us? Does the situation also influence how black affects our appearance?
A: Yes, black clothing has unique effects on how we are perceived, and this varies by situational context.
A group of Czech researchers published an article in the journal Studia Psychologica in 2013 in which they measured whether black clothing makes a person seem more/less aggressive, or more/less respectable. They also wanted to find out if a person's judgment about the situation could influence this effect.
- The researchers took pictures of a man and a woman.
Both had a neutral facial expression and neither had any “secondary” attributes that might be attributed to personality (moustache, glasses, unusual haircut, etc.). The models were wearing a long-sleeved shirt and solid pants. The background was white.
Each photograph was digitally altered so the clothing the models wore was either black or a lighter gray.
- Then, the pictures were shown to a randomly-selected group of 475 high school students.
- The pictures were randomly presented to the students with a short sentence that described the situation the person is in. The three situations were:
This person is suspected of a violent offense. (Aggressive context)
This person is a participant in a job selection process for the position of state prosecutor. (Respectable context)
Basically, if you see a person wearing black AND you're told they're a violent criminal – does that judgment influence how the color black appears? What if they're wearing all black and they're going to a job interview to be a state prosecutor – will they seem especially respectable?
- The researchers made four hypotheses about how the pictures would be judged.
H1: Black clothing would make a person appear more aggressive no matter what the context.
H2: Black clothing would make a person appear especially aggressive when the person is in an aggressive context.
H3: Black clothing would make a person appear more respectable no matter what the context.
H4: Black clothing would make a person appear especially respectable when the person is in a respectable context.
- The students who viewed the pictures rated the pictures on a 5-point scale for 12 adjectives:
- Three aggressive adjectives (aggressive, rude, belligerent)
- Three respectable adjectives (trustworthy, respectable, responsible)
- Six unrelated adjectives (sensitive, interesting, discreet, quiet, friendly, nervous)
The male model wearing all black was judged as more aggressive, no matter what the context. Hypothesis 1 was confirmed.
When the male model was described as a violent criminal, he was judged as ESPECIALLY aggressive when he wore black clothing (compared to gray clothing). In other words, black clothing enhanced the perception that he was violent, IF he was described as a violent criminal. Hypothesis 2 was confirmed.
Wearing all black or all gray did not affect whether a person is perceived as respectable (regardless of context). Hypothesis 3 was not confirmed.
While the job applicants were (unsurprisingly) rated as more respectable than the violent criminals, the color of the clothing did nothing to change this effect. Hypothesis 4 was not confirmed.
The researchers concluded that wearing black (compared to gray) makes a man seem more aggressive, no matter what the context.
If people were told that the model was a violent criminal, wearing black made him seem even more aggressive than when he was wearing gray.
What can we take from this?
- If we are in a situation where we need to appear more aggressive, we may choose a black suit or black clothing to enhance this.
- However, black clothing and gray clothing are perceived as equally respectable.
- Black may be considered TOO aggressive for some situations. If you're trying to dispel the notion that you're too aggressive, don't pick black.
- Therefore, a gray suit (for instance) is a more versatile piece of clothing. It is perceived as equally respectable to black, but not as “over-the-top” aggressive.
- If the circumstance could call for black or gray, only choose black if you want to appear especially aggressive.
Linhartova, P., Tapal, A., Brabenec, L., Macecek, R., Buchta, J. J., Prochazka, J., Jezek, S., & Vaculik, M. (2013). The color black and situational context: Factors influencing perception of an individual's aggressiveness and respectability. Studia Psychologica, 55(4), 321-333.