Darwin (1876) first noticed that primate males use colouration for attracting females and displaying dominance and subsequent studies have provided support for the significance of red. The intensity of red colouration in rhesus macaques and mandrills offers cues to male quality and depends on their testosterone-levels and male mandrills assess a rival’s fighting ability and dominance rank based on their brightness of the rival’s red colouration. In essence, the red colouration is a badge of status in primates, and in fact red colouration is associated with dominance and aggression in a wide range of taxa.
In humans, skin redness is not such a pronounced signal, but males tend to be redder than females and facial redness does correlate with testosterone levels and so may indicate high status and thus dominance. Redness due to oxygenated (redder) blood is a signal of increased aerobic fitness and humans interpret skin blood colouration as an honest cue to underlying health and a “ruddy” face is often associated with healthiness. Red skin colouration is also associated with anger and dominance.
For both humans and non-human species, therefore, there is evidence that red colouration signals both biological traits (health, testosterone and dominance) and emotional states (anger/arousal). It is also known that in animals, artificial colours can exploit innate responses to natural stimuli. We thus hypothesised that a similar response could exist in humans with artificial clothing colour exploiting the evolutionary associations between red and dominance. Human sporting competition provides the perfect test arena for this idea.
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