Red enhances human performance in contests

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Red enhances human performance in contests
Nature, Vol. 435, May 19, 2005
Russell A. Hill, Robert A. Barton

Hill and Barton examined the results of the 2004 Olympic games in four categories of competition—boxing, tae kwon do, Greco-Roman wrestling, and freestyle wrestling—chosen because in each match, one contestant wears red, the other blue. Within weight classes, color assignments are apparently made randomly in the first official round of competition; subsequent assignments are then determined by the initial roster. (In boxing, for example, the winner of bout 1 plays in red in the second round against the winner of bout 2, who plays in blue. The same arrangement is used for the winners of bouts 3 and 4, 5 and 6, and so on.) The authors found that for each sport, significantly greater than 50% of bout winners wore red outfits.

To study the findings more closely, Hill and Barton focused on competitions in which the two contestants were most evenly matched. According to the article, they did this because "wearing red presumably tips the balance between losing and winning only when other factors are fairly equal." Such matches do appear to represent the only cases in which there were significantly more red than blue winners. (A description of their methods can be found in a supplementary text file at Nature’s website—see below.)

The authors, both members of the Evolutionary Anthropology Research Group at the University of Durham in the UK, evidently favor a behavioral/biological explanation for the apparent red advantage: "Red coloration is a sexually selected, testosterone-dependent signal of male quality in a variety of animals, and in some non-human species a male’s dominance can be experimentally increased by attaching artificial red stimuli. Here we show that a similar effect can influence the outcome of physical contests in humans."

The article, excel data file, and supplementary text file are available at Nature's website. More detailed information about the competitions can be found at the 2004 Olympic Games website.

(1) Assuming that Hill and Barton’s results are valid, what do you think is the most likely explanation for the surplus of red winners?

(2) The authors don’t discuss the possibility that the color of competitors’ outfits affects the performance of the contest judges. (Judges assign points to each athlete during the match.) How might you evaluate this possibility?

(3) Get the data and carry out your own test to see if there is a signficant difference between the reds and the blues.