Why The Color Red Makes Us Mad


Red, rojo, rouge, rosso? No matter your native language, the color red evokes emotional and physical responses different from those of other colors.

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When you think of red, you probably formulate strong mental images such as a ripe apple, a New England barn, the stripes on an American flag or even Dorothy’s shoes. And now, according to a recent study, red is quantified with increased physical response and velocity of that response in pinch and grip test subjects.

When presented color stimuli for response time (velocity) and force of that response, subjects reacted with higher values on these two parameters for, you guessed it, red. So, do the bullfighter’s cape and the business executive’s power tie work to the same end? Or did the color of the apple seduce Eve?

Red is the beauty of sunsets, the color of love and the life force that flows through our body — blood. We “see red” when upset. And now, as recently demonstrated, we physically react stronger and faster when we see it. But, have we not subconsciously realized this all along?

Tie in the anthropological significance of red in various settings and its myriad evocations, connect those to emotion -- which some say triggers its physical response -- and the evidence seems irrefutable. Red is the sports car, by urban legend, most frequently stopped by police. And red is the color of the emergency lights of an ambulance or the flashers on your car.

So, why do we increase our velocity and power of reaction when in view of red? Perhaps it is good thing, a neurological trigger that brings us to a quick halt at every traffic light or stop sign. Drivers passing through the green the world over are happy to hear of this confirmation about their fellow travelers coming to a stop. Red, indeed, seems to help us quickly apply the brakes, as the study shows. Thank goodness for red.


The Color Red Increases Speed and Force of Reactions
The study examines how the color red affects muscular activity. Previous research has shown that red induces motor activity in many vertebrates. This study shows that when compared to gray and blue of the same lightness, red induces a stronger and faster motor reaction and facilitates strength and force. Hence, the colors around us predict their affect, not just on our sense of beauty, but also our ability to move fast in response to a threat and to focus on tasks.

The color red instills a feeling of threat, fear and danger in primates and humans. In the human world, red is the color of anger, danger and error; and yet, researchers have failed to systematically and convincingly associate any color with a physical reaction from humans or animals.

Here, the researchers examine how motor activity is driven by the brain upon being stimulated by the color red. In humans and primates, parts of the brain are stimulated upon getting a threat signal and trigger activity in muscles to prepare for defense or flight. This type of motor behavior is voluntary and forceful and is being explored in this study.

  • In test one, gray and red were compared. In this test, 30 students (aged 10-16 years) participated. A questionnaire with the participant’s number written in large red or gray color was handed to each participant with a metal clasp.
  • The participants were asked to pinch open the clasp wide after reading the number aloud. An experimenter recorded the width in millimeters with a ruler, and served as an indicator of maximum force.
  • In test two, blue was used along with red and gray. This test measured the velocity of force as well as strength associated with each color.
  • In test two, 46 people (aged 18-31 years) were divided into three groups. A handgrip and a questionnaire were given to each participant. The participants were asked to squeeze hard when the word “squeeze” appeared on a screen in a black font on a red, blue or gray background.
  • Maximum force, mean force and rate of escalation in force were recorded digitally.
  • Male participants were able to open the clasp wider or squeeze the handgrip harder than female participants.
  • In test one, the color of the number on the participant’s paper affected the pinching action. Average width for red (16.26 mm) was higher than gray (12.55 mm).
  • In test two, on average, red influenced the participants to squeeze with more strength (289.44 N) than blue (221.42 N) or gray (217.36 N).
  • The mean force was also more for the participants who saw a red background than those who viewed the blue or gray backgrounds.
  • The red background induced a faster rate towards maximum strength than blue or gray.

Shortcomings/next steps
Red seems to initiate a surge of energy. Future research is required to test if red initiates any specific actions against threat. It is not clear whether red induces anger or expectation of aggression, and results in corresponding reactions (like hitting). Neural and hormonal activity associated with seeing red is also recommended.

The viewing of red induces a stronger motor reaction when compared to two other colors, gray and blue. Red color did not just elicit a stronger physical reaction, but also a faster and more consistently-strong reaction. This phenomenon is similar to wild animal behavior where red may be seen as a color of threat, inducing a rapid preparation for defense or flight. While such stimulation might help in some aspects of competitive sport, having red around might be distracting for tasks requiring concentration. Different colors have different lightness and hue characteristics, and the study suggests that these have a significant effect on human life.

For More Information:
Perception of the color red enhances the force and velocity of motor output
Publication Journal: Emotion, 2011
By Andrew J. Elliot; Henk Aarts
From the University of Rochester, Rochester, New York and the University of Utrecht, Utrecht, the Netherlands

Twitter: Seeing a red traffic light may help you to hit the brake faster. Via @FYILiving

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