Can color make us more likely to solicit intimate information?

When we think of romance, love, or Valentine’s Day, the color red often pops into our minds. In fact, people tend to rate the color red positively, because of its association with passion and warmth (Kaya & Epps, 2004), and Williams and Neelon (2013) note that “…the color red carries many different social, emotional, and sexual connotations across cultures” (p. 10).

A growing body of research has shown that the color red can influence perceptions of attractiveness—a phenomenon labeled the “red effect” (Elliot & Niesta, 2008). It’s not all that surprising, as red has long been associated with attraction; for example, red cosmetics are often linked to romance (e.g., Essie has a deep red nail polish called “Romantically Involved”). The names of these red beauty-related items range from the romantic to the more suggestive—I’ll leave the latter for you to find.

Marisa T. Cohen, Ph.D.,Marisa T. Cohen, Ph.D., obtained a B.S. in Biology and Society from Cornell University and a Ph.D. in Educational Psychology, with a concentration in Learning, Development, and Instruction from the Graduate Center of the City University of New York. She is currently an Associate Professor of Psychology at St. Francis College in Brooklyn and the co-founder of the Self-Awareness and Bonding Lab (SABL), which is a relationship science lab.

Editor: Nadeem Noor

Back to the research: In 2008, Elliot and Niesta conducted a series of five experiments to examine the “red effect.” In one, men were asked to rate whether a photo of a female presented on a red or white background was more attractive. Additional experiments altered the color of the woman’s shirt and examined factors other than attraction, such as the male’s intentions regarding their likelihood to date the woman. Results showed that not only did men rate a woman in red as more attractive, but they were also more likely to want to date and spend money on her (Elliot & Niesta, 2008). Follow-up studies have also shown how the presentation of the color red can alter behavior. Niesta-Kayser, Elliot, and Feltman (2010) demonstrated that men chose to sit closer to females wearing red t-shirts than those wearing blue t-shirts.

In 2016, I conducted a study with two research assistants to examine the red effect and coupled it with Aron, Melinat, Aron, Vallone, and Bator’s (1997) closeness-generating questions. [You may be more familiar with these questions as the “36 Questions That Lead to Love,” which went viral in an article during Valentine’s Day 2015 (Catron, 2015).]

Our research focused on how color influences people’s perceptions and behaviors. To do so, we conducted an experiment to examine how the presence of the color pink influenced both judgment of the intimate nature of an ambiguous vignette and the likelihood to use questions which encourage self-disclosure from a random partner. (Pink was chosen to see if the red effect would extend beyond the specific red hue.)

For the study, 78 college students, 12 males and 66 females, were recruited. A majority (92.3 percent) identified as heterosexual. These participants ranged in age from 17 to 52 (with a median of 21.6) and were ethnically diverse. At the time of the study, 57.7 percent of participants were single.

Participants were welcomed by two research assistants; one identified herself as the researcher and the other was identified by the "researcher" as someone that the subjects would be getting to know. The participants were told that the researcher was interested in studying the art of conversation. The subjects were also told that they were not going to have a conversation with the other individual, but were to select a total of five questions to ask her, with the goal of getting to know her better, from a list presented to them. This list consisted of 12 questions—six closeness-generating questions and six small-talk questions from Aron et al.’s 1997 study. 

Depending on the condition to which participants were assigned, these questions were either printed on deep pink or deep blue paper. It was hypothesized that the red effect would extend to the color pink, and that those given pink paper would choose more closeness-generating questions, as they require more intimate answers. Thus, the color would have influenced participants’ choices.

In fact, there was a statistically significant difference in the number of closeness-generating questions selected between the pink paper and blue paper groups, with those in the pink paper group opting for the more intimate questions. (It is important to note that there were no gender differences in question choice.)

After this, an ambiguous vignette describing two high school friends was presented to both groups on either pink or blue paper (depending on the condition participants had been assigned to in the first experiment). The goal was to see how romantic the participants felt this vignette was. It was hypothesized that those who had the story presented to them on pink paper would view it as more romantic in nature. The results, however, did not demonstrate a significant difference in whether or not people viewed the scenario as romantic based on the color of the paper. There also weren’t any gender differences.

While the red effect held true for the first part of the experiment, it didn’t alter people’s perceptions of the story in the second part.

There were limitations to our work, such as the use of a convenience college sample and the majority of participants being heterosexual females, but it was an interesting initial investigation. It showed that color can influence the likelihood of forming intimate relationships with others, by making people more likely to ask closeness-generating questions. However, when an ambiguous scenario was presented, color did not have a significant effect. This suggests that perhaps the influence is related to behaviors and perceptions that affect us directly, rather than situations involving two other people that have no relation to us. Either way, it sparked ideas for new studies in this area.