It’s been said that color influences our mood, emotions, and even behavior – from appetite control to shopping.

Of course, we have to be careful not to oversimplify and over-exaggerate what we find in the literature, but color does seem to have some effect on a range of factors – among them, high-level performance.

So could something so seemingly trivial as the color of our dress, shirt, or tie give us an advantage in performance and audition/competition settings? Or is this just much ado about nothing?

Red vs. blue

A 2005 study found that athletes in boxing, tae kwon do, and wrestling at the 2004 Olympic Games won more often when wearing red outfits than when wearing blue (16 of 21 rounds, and 19 of 29 weight classes).

The difference was statistically significant (meaning, not likely due to chance), but why did this happen? Did wearing red change the athletes’ mental, physical, or emotional states in some way so as to give them some small, but meaningful advantage over their opponent?

Red effects on athletes

A more recent study found that wearing red uniforms does indeed have an effect on athletes’ physiological states before and during a fight.

For instance, when participants were wearing red chest protectors and gear, they generated more force on a strength test than when they put on equivalent blue outfits (194.38kg vs. 175.84kg).

Their heart rate when fighting was also higher when wearing red than when wearing blue (162.00 vs. 155.71).

Red effects on judges

Interestingly, it seems that observers are also affected by the color of the uniforms.

In a study of referee judgment, officials were asked to watch and score videos of tae kwon do fights. The researchers showed each video twice – once with normal colors, and once where they tweaked the videos to switch the uniform colors. When all was said and done, the referees tended to award more points to the fighters wearing red – even when they watched the same fight with colors switched!

But don’t get carried away…

Wait! Before you get too excited and go on a shopping spree, I should let you know that red-clad Olympians didn’t demonstrate the same performance advantage in the 2008 Olympic Games as they showed in the 2004 Olympics.

Why not?

I suspect this has to do with the fact that there are individual differences in how the impact of color affects performance. Remember how we all have an individualized optimal zone of functioning in which we do our best performing?

For some athletes, an elevated heart rate may put them into their zone of optimal functioning (ZOF) and facilitate higher-level performances. For others, this might take them out of their ZOF, and lead to worse performances.

So it’s not as straightforward as simply wearing red – the right color or outfit probably depends on what you need to get into the right mental/physical/emotional state.

Dress on purpose

So there may be days when you need to get more excited, and wear outfits that get you fired up. And then may be days when you want to be more calm, and wear outfits that help you feel more chill.

After all, we know intuitively and from experience that what we wear can absolutely have an impact on how we feel and subsequently act.

Heck, when I was preparing for phone interviews in grad school, someone advised me to make sure I got dressed up in a nice shirt and pants (if not a suit) and do the interview while standing – even though the interviewer obviously couldn’t see me.

I know it sounds silly, and I can assure you that I felt like a goofball walking around the house in my suit on the phone (and even sillier asking my wife which shirt I should wear for my phone interview).

But as you can imagine, one’s voice and demeanor come across on the phone quite differently when slouched in a chair dressed in PJ’s.

At the end of the day, I suppose our choice of clothes may seem like a small thing. Yet when we’ve practiced our butts off, and have gotten to a level where talent and ability is relatively equal, it’s the little things that can make all the difference in the world.

One-sentence summary

“Mere color, unspoiled by meaning, and unallied with definite form, can speak to the soul in a thousand different ways.” ~Oscar Wilde

photo credit: Singapore 2010 Youth Olympic Games via photopin cc