Seeing red at the Olympics

Taekwondo competitors

Watching Team GB competing in the taekwondo final, I mentioned to a friend that competitors wearing red guards won more bouts than those in blue guards.  Inevitably, this started a discussion about what it might be that caused the difference.  Was it because higher ranked competitors were given the red guards?  Did it affect all competitors equally?  Was it because the people in red thought or fought differently? Or because those in blue did? Like all the best research, the observed effects had prompted more questions that deserved further consideration.

The original research was done by Hill and Barton (2005) from Durham University and published in Nature. It showed that at the Athens Olympics in 2004, in four combat sports (boxing, taekwondo, Greco-Roman wrestling, and freestyle wrestling), those competitors who wore red guards won approximately 55% of bouts, though the effect was more pronounced in boxing and taekwondo than in the wrestling sports.

Some of our questions were answered immediately.  The colour of guards was allocated to the competitors randomly, so it wasn’t simply because higher ranked or more able competitors were given red. They also observed that the effect was more pronounced if the difference in scores was smaller, so wearing red wouldn’t help an amateur beat an expert but it could make a real difference if two competitors were evenly matched.

Subsequently, they found a similar effect in team sports after studying the scores in football at Euro 2004 which was supported by a much larger replication on the English Football league by Attrill et al (2008) and the general proposal that red was affecting the competitors’ performance was supported by a repeated measures study – competitors competed both in red and blue – that showed red was associated with higher heart rate and strength (Dreiskemper et al, 2013).

Hill and Barton were anthropologists and related this to effects that had been seen in animals. In some animals, red is sexually-selected and associated with dominance. They proposed that the red guards were affecting the performance of the competitors and that sports bodies should consider changing the colours.

But the story did not end there. Around the time of the 2008 Olympics in Beijing, Hagemann et al (2008) challenged the idea that the effect was caused by changes in the participants. They asked judges to score several video recorded bouts of taekwondo. Unknown to the judges, the videos had been digitally remastered, so that some judges saw competitors in red and blue while others saw competitors wearing the opposite colour.

When competitors were evenly matched, the colour red again benefited competitors but this time it was because the judges awarded them more points. Split second differences in the perception of the aggression of the competitors were having an effect on their scores. The effect that Hill and Barton (2005) saw might not have been due to changes in the competitors caused by their guards but due to changes in the way they were judged.

To their credit, Hill and Barton followed up on this research themselves. Wiedemann et al (2015) asked participants to rate the aggression, dominance and identify the emotional state of men wearing shirts that had been digitally manipulated to display different colours.  Men wearing red were judged to be more aggressive, more dominant and angry.

It still remains to be studied whether any real difference in performance caused by red – such as that seen by Dreiskemper et al (2013) – is due to an increase in those wearing red or a decrease in those wearing blue.  Similarly, it might be interesting to investigate whether any indirect change that red has on the support given by the audience acts like a catalyst to increase any difference in performance or the judges’ perception.

For anyone studying psychology at A Level, the research has several lessons. First, it is that simple observations are often most interesting because of the questions they open up. This is why the often overlooked discussion section of research papers deserves more attention. A lot of time and effort may have gone into constructing the method and analysing the data to answer one simple question, but it is the further questions that it raises that make science a more interesting creative exercise.

It also shows the importance of combining the strengths of different types of research. Although the initial natural experiment showed that there was an association between red and performance, it was not possible to identify what caused the relationship. It was only when the situation was reduced to individual factors and these were manipulated in controlled laboratory  experiments that it became possible to identify the causes of the effect. Further research might recombine these factors to assess which have the strongest impact and how they interact.

Finally, it shows the important of critical thinking in psychology. Given the simple observation that competitors who wore red won more bouts, it was easy to assume that this was because red made them perform better.  This sort of bias is almost inevitable because of a social cognition bias we all have called the actor-observer effect. This bias makes us explain others behaviour as a result of some trait they have rather than considering the role of their environment. But the best psychologists always look for alternative explanations for any result they observe.

References

Hill & Barton, 2005, Red enhances human performance in contests, Nature 435, 293 (19 May 2005)

“The Red Advantage: The Impact of red on combat sports”

Stafford, Wear Red to Win

Sciencentral, Is Wearing Red an Olympic Advantage?

Dr George Smith is head of psychology at Millfield School in Somerset.  After his degree, he combined his love of technology and language by conducting research into computer-mediated communication. He moved into teaching when he discovered that he enjoyed the daily excitement of dealing with the challenging questions asked by A Level students more than sitting in a lab by himself writing software.

Photo: By Rafal khaled (Own work) [CC BY-SA 3.0 (http://creativecommons.org/licenses/by-sa/3.0)], via Wikimedia Commons

Leave a Reply