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Inspired by two recent questions about colour ( Is there a relationship between yellow and moods?) and sport ( Is playing sport at your 'home ground' a benefit? ) I thought the following question should be addressed on skeptics.SE: does wearing red give a team a sporting advantage?

The idea seems plausible for English football, for example, where two out of the 4 teams who have shared the Premiership football title since the league's founding in 1993 usually wear red (the most successful, Manchester United, are sometimes know as the Red devils). Some actual analysis is claimed here: http://www.livescience.com/276-red-outfits-give-athletes-advantage.html .

So, is it true? If so, how big is the advantage? And, perhaps most important, how can the effect be studied reliably in a way that distinguished the direction of causality (eg maybe successful clubs are more likely to choose red and bias the results)?

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    In keeping with the many places of employment on my CV and the results of this years College (American) Football season, I have only one thing to say ... Roll! Tide! Roll! In any case, I have heard more than one person opine that red-wearing teams have noisier and more obnoxious fans, but I don't take them seriously. – dmckee Jan 11 '12 at 21:57
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    Whoa! Reading the LiveScience article made it sound like a statistic misunderstanding, but the original study was published in Nature! That I did NOT expect! Russell A. Hill & Robert A. Barton, Psychology: Red enhances human performance in contests, Nature 435, 293 (19 May 2005) | doi:10.1038/435293a. Note one letter to Nature questioning the validity (and a reply from the authors) – Oddthinking Jan 11 '12 at 23:10
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    For the new England Patriots, I hope Red, White, and Blue gives them an advantage! :) – Larian LeQuella Jan 12 '12 at 1:31
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    Brasil, the top most world champion in football, uses yellow shirts (5 titles). 3 titles go to Italy, blue shirts. As well Germany 3 titles, most often white shirts, rarely green. Argentina 2 titles white+blue. Uruguay used what? - 2 titles. French (allez les bleuz) 2 titles. England, white shirts, 1 title. Spain, 1 title - red shirt. End of minority report. – user unknown Jan 12 '12 at 10:23
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    @userunknown If the effect is real I suspect it is small so international football will be a poor place to observe it as the teams play a very small number of matches in a mostly knockout format. Leagues where the same teams play each other many times a year and many where clashes will involve them not playing in their normal colours should provide better stats. – matt_black Jan 12 '12 at 12:06
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Red seems to have some effect on performance in well constructed experiments and in sport, though we could do with further studies

The trouble with many studies on the relationship between colour and performance is that they are based on speculative theories and rely on poorly controlled experiments. This is summed up by the authors of this paper in the Journal of Experimental Psychology thus:

...in the literature at present, there is no clear evidence for a color effect on performance attainment. It is possible that this summary statement reflects the fact that color effects on perfor- mance attainment do not actually exist. However, it is also possible that color–performance relationships do exist but that weaknesses in the existing research have made them difficult to detect. Several important weaknesses may be noted...

This papers report the results of carefully controlled experiments in a variety of environments on whether the perception of red alters performance in intellectual tests such as IQ tests or solving anagrams. And they find a significant effect. As the summary says:

Four experiments demonstrate that the brief perception of red prior to an important test (e.g., an IQ test) impairs performance, and this effect appears to take place outside of participants’ conscious awareness. Two further experiments establish the link between red and avoidance motivation...

So, in simple terms, red reduces performance but not in a way people are conscious of. And one of the mechanisms is an unconscious avoidance of harder tasks when given a choice.

This clarifies part of the possible mechanisms behind the observations in sporting contests: it isn't that wearing red makes you perform better, it makes your opponent perform worse. The classic paper on this is a paper in Nature (abstract only online, but, for readers in the UK the British Library is your friend) from 2005 (though it assumes that red makes the wearer perform better). The paper uses the fact that some sports randomise colours so removing most of the possible confounding factors from the statistics. Speculating that red may have some residual effect as a primate dominance signal they report significant differences between player performance when players wear red in 4 olympic sports from 2004 (boxing, tae kwon do, greco-roman wrestling, freestyle wrestling). As they report:

we found that for all four competitions, there is a consistent and statistically significant pattern in which contestants wearing red win more fights

They find an excess percentage of wins of between 2% and 5% over the 50% expected if colour had no effect. This effect was >10% with evenly matched opponents but not significant at all for opponents of significantly different abilities (which is what you would expect for a small effect).

But does this apply to sports like football (that's soccer for americans)? In 2008 a paper appeared in the Journal of Sports Sciences (again abstract only online) that used a large dataset of football results from football in England from 1947 to 2003. They used several approaches to attempt to disentangle confounding factors. For example, one proxy for teams support base (which might independently relate to capability) is city size. They report that in most cities with more than one team consistently in the top leagues it is the one in red that does better. Another factor that matters is the observations that teams often don't wear their home colours in away games. They report:

Across all league divisions, red teams had the best home record, with significant differences in both percentages of maximum points achieved and mean position in the home league table...No significant differences were found for performance in matches away from home.

The obvious weakness in their analysis is that they don't analyse away matches by what colours were actually worn (teams will only swap from their home colours when there is a clash). This might significantly improve the statistical quality of the analysis as would updating it to cover the last 8 years. Also, there are now large statistical databases of team performance which have some value in predicting results (see here). Combining these with accurate colour information in both home and away games might improve the statistics for recent games and highlight the size of the effect. I'd love to see other international leagues analysed.

So, in summary, wearing red seems to reduce, by a small amount, the performance of your opponents in sport and the effect of seeing red also seems to operate to lower performance in non-sporting activities.

  • They report that in most cities with more than one team consistently in the top leagues it is the one in red that does better. Why should it only work in the top leagues? If you perform bad, you leave the league, and if you perform good in the lower league, you join the upper one. So in the long run, only red teams should 'survive'. Bigger cities have hundreds of teams, enough to contain many red colored ones. – user unknown Jan 16 '12 at 13:42
  • @userunknown The technical reason was because they wanted to have consistent records of competitive results over a long time period and they could do this for the top 4 english divisions. There are different tradeoffs in the quality of statistics if you try to include teams not consistently present. – matt_black Jan 16 '12 at 14:24
  • Well, but the overall observation is, that if there was such an advantage, over the years, there should only be red clothed teams left. And: The name of a team might be constant, but internally, it's changing all the time. Players get older, get injured, leave and join. Coaches too. They might do doping or not. It's an illusion to talk about 'consistency'. – user unknown Jan 16 '12 at 14:43
  • @userunknown The advantage would need to be large to drive out non-red teams and the results above say it is small. Other team advantages (more highly skilled players, better team spirit or a rich russian owner) will be more important. That is why very careful analysis or experiment are required to see the red effect at all. – matt_black Jan 18 '12 at 17:03
  • No. A small advantage would accumulate over time. If there is no long-time effect, there is probably no effect. And it would increase over time, since more success means more money, more visitors, more expensive players - it's a positive feedback cycle. Of course rich owners would favor more successful teams, and highly skilled players would perform even better in red dresses. – user unknown Jan 18 '12 at 17:36

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