Are teams wearing red more likely to win?
The extent of my football knowledge is this: the ball is round, the pitch is green, and England’s performance in the 2018 Men’s World Cup was the best it had been for 28 years. I learned the last of those things while watching England play Sweden, during which my boyfriend wondered aloud why England had worn their red away kit so much in the tournament. I know there’s a logical explanation involving teams being designated ‘home’ or ‘away’ and [waves hands] kits and so forth – but it reminded me that there’s a bunch of psychology research out there about the effects of kit colour on sporting success. Could it possibly be that wearing red most of the time had given England some kind of advantage?
Didn’t win, though, did we?
Let’s start with research on football kits. Among the top 70 teams in English men’s football from 1947 to 2002, teams wearing red tended to win matches more often than teams wearing other colours [i].
Of course, if you’re not English and I ask you to name an English football team, I bet that it’s Manchester United that comes to mind. There’s a good reason for that – they are the highest earning football club in the world, and in terms of trophies, the most successful English football club in history. They also wear red. So, of course, the first question that springs to mind when I say, “Red equals success in English men’s football,” is, “Don’t you mean Manchester United equals success?”
Well, yes, that’s entirely possible – especially because teams wearing red in Spanish men’s football don’t seem to win any more often than teams wearing other colours [ii]. So maybe it’s just a coincidence? If we look at some other sports, we should be able to figure it out.
How about… the men’s Australian National Rugby League? Nope, teams in red aren’t particularly likely to win [iii]. But at the 2004 Olympics, wearing read meant you were more likely to win in tae-kwondo, freestyle wrestling, men’s Greco-Roman wrestling and men’s boxing [iv].
One last sport: judo. What’s that you say? No-one wears red in a judo match? No, no they don’t. They only wear white and blue. But that does mean we’ve got an ideal sport in which to test whether other colours can have an effect on success in the absence of red. I think the answer is probably no, here. On one hand, in the 2004 Olympics, wearing blue in a men’s judo match meant you were more likely to win [v], but when Dijkstra and colleagues [vi] looked at a much larger set of judo matches (over 45,000 in total, including both men’s matches and women’s matches), they found no advantage for any particular colour.
So it’s not perfect, but I think we have enough evidence to say that wearing red looks like it confers an advantage, at least in some sports.
An aside about gender and generalising
You might have noticed that almost all the research I’ve talked about is about men’s sports. Indeed, almost all the research I could find is about men’s sports. I am genuinely not sure from reading the study about the 2004 Olympics whether only male competitors were included in the analysis, but even if men’s and women’s events were included, their results apply mostly to men because two out of the four events they looked at during the 2004 Olympics did not have a women’s competition that year.
Similarly, the research I’m about to talk about looking at why red might have an effect on competitions is – you guessed it – mostly about men. People of different genders often don’t behave in different ways, but because this blog covers research that’s mostly about one gender, it doesn’t hurt to be slightly sceptical about what these findings can tell us about humanity as a whole.
Have you read my new Jane Austen spoof, Gender and Generalising?
Back to the main question: why on earth would wearing red confer an advantage in (men’s) sports?
Is it the players?
When we get angry, our faces tend to get redder because they’re flushed with blood, and when we’re fearful they get paler as the blood drains away [iv]. Perhaps this long experience of red and anger has made it intimidating to play against a team wearing red?
To understand this, let’s consider another type of game: poker. Ten Velden and colleagues [vii] asked people to play a computer-based game of poker against a simulated opponent. When the opponent had red poker chips, the players found them more intimidating than with other colour chips, but when the player had red chips, they felt more dominant than with other colour chips.
We might also ask whether being in red has some kind of effect on the person wearing it. To test this, Dreiskaemper and colleagues [viii] asked pairs of participants to fight each other with those giant Q-tip things that they used to use on the 90s TV show Gladiators.
Fighters got a stick, helmet, protective vest and finger guard, either all red or all blue, and were paired up to fight against each other. Each pair fought twice, and swapped kit colours in between. Because this experiment was done so that people were compared against themselves, rather than each other, this can’t mean that the experimenters had accidentally got the stronger people with higher heart rates to wear red. The researchers looked at heart rate and the results of strength tests, both of which were higher when someone was wearing red than when they were wearing blue. Perhaps simply wearing red is enough to make us readier to fight?
The other interesting thing about this experiment is that all the fights were videoed, and then changed to black and white before being rated by people who hadn’t seen the fights live. They had no way of telling who was wearing red and who was wearing blue. This suggests another possible explanation for red teams winning: perhaps referees are biased by colour?
Is it the referee?
Remember that finding that male boxers were more likely to win if they were wearing red? Well, Sorokowski and colleagues [ix] asked people to watch a video of a boxing match that “finished almost in a tie” (their words) and to decide who had landed the most blows – but they changed the colours of the boxers’ shorts so that some people saw red versus blue, some saw blue versus black, and some saw black versus red.
No matter which boxer was wearing which shorts, people tended to think that more blows were landed by boxers in red or black shorts, and fewer by boxers in blue shorts. The people who took part in this experiment weren’t professional boxing referees, but it’s certainly a possibility that referees are biased by the colour a competitor is wearing.
However, there’s one other very obvious explanation …
Is it because red’s easier to see than other colours?
Saying red is easy to see is a bit of a sweeping generalization – check out this picture of a red beret not standing out against a red wall – but since there’s not that much red in the world around us, typically things that are red stand out. This is especially true of football pitches, where the green of the grass contrasts with the red of a player’s kit (unless you are red-green colourblind).
Red being highly visible to most people does make a difference, at least on a screen. It’s easier to ‘hit’ a red moving target than a blue or a black one in a simple computer game [x]. While this doesn’t explain the red advantage in combat sports (because you want to avoid being hit, and wearing red will make that harder), it might explain the red advantage in football, because it means that you’ll probably be more accurate in passing to teammates.
In reality, though, it’s a bit more complicated than that. White is actually the most visible kit against the green of a football field [xi]. They also had a look at European men’s football teams away kits, which change quite a lot over time, meaning that you can compare approximately the same team in several different colours. High-visibility away kits were associated with more success than low-visibility away kits, but for only two out of the ten teams they looked at.
So, what have we learned? High visibility might be helpful in football, referees might be swayed by red, opponents might be intimidated by red, and if you’re wearing red, you might feel better about yourself.
These aren’t very solid conclusions, but that’s not a bad thing. Sciences, including psychology, slowly move forward by a series of missteps and corrections, conflicting evidence and insights that allow us to make sense of what is happening. While I can’t give you any answer other than a massive shrug at the moment, if you ask me whether red is a winning colour again in ten years or twenty years, I might actually be able to give you something definitive.
[ii] García-Rubio, M. A., Picazo-Tadeo, A. J., & González-Gómez, F. (2011). Does a red shirt improve sporting performance? Evidence from Spanish football. Applied Economics Letters, 18(11), 1001-1004.
[vii] Ten Velden, F. S., Baas, M., Shalvi, S., Preenen, P. T., & De Dreu, C. K. (2012). In competitive interaction displays of red increase actors' competitive approach and perceivers' withdrawal. Journal of Experimental Social Psychology, 48(5), 1205-1208.
[ix] Sorokowski, P., Szmajke, A., Hamamura, T., Jiang, F., & Sorokowska, A. (2014). “Red wins”,“black wins” and “blue loses” effects are in the eye of beholder, but they are culturally universal: A cross-cultural analysis of the influence of outfit colours on sports performance. Polish Psychological Bulletin, 45(3), 318-325.
[x] Sorokowski, P., & Szmajke, A. (2011). The influence of the" Red Win" effect in sports: A hypothesis of erroneous perception of opponents dressed in red - preliminary test. Human Movement, 12(4), 367-373.
[xi] Olde Rikkert, J., Haes, V. D., Barsingerhorn, A. D., Theelen, T., & Olde Rikkert, M. G. (2015). The colour of a football outfit affects visibility and team success. Journal of Sports Sciences, 33(20), 2166-2172.