Should police uniforms be red? Would that make you safer and more easily in control of touchy situations?
You might jump to that conclusion after a quick read of a new study by British scientists of results at the 2004 Olympics.
A research team from England’s University of Durham compared the performance of athletes randomly assigned red outfits or body protectors compared to those who wore blue in one-on-one competitions of boxing, tae kwon do, Greco-Roman wrestling and freestyle wrestling.
Those wearing red won about 55 per cent of the time, while those in blue triumphed in only 45 per cent of their contests. According to reporter Bryn Nelson writing in Newsday, the researchers conclude that “the evolutionary connections between the color red and male dominance or testosterone-driven aggression in animals may well extend to humans, perhaps providing a subtle lift or leaving an opponent feeling, well, a little blue.”
In other words, the person wearing red may receive a subconscious hormonal boost that builds confidence while his opponent experiences a subconscious hesitation that either causes that person to back off or provides a slight momentary advantage that the red-wearer can then capitalize on.
Before carrying these findings to the realm of police uniforms, however, Dr. Bill Lewinski, an expert in behavioral psychology and executive director of the Force Science Research Center, advises caution. Besides projecting an image of dominance, red can also be a sign of confrontation and can be seen as a challenge, he points out.
“To a friendly or neutral audience, it conveys confidence and assertion,” he says. “But to a hostile audience, it can invite confrontation. It could create a negative impact that you then have to work to overcome, whereas a more neutral color like brown or blue can help neutralize and disperse hostility. Of course we are talking subtleties in both cases, but subtle influences can be important.”
How about the famously red uniform of the Royal Canadian Mounted Police? “Yes, that was used to advantage, especially in the RCMP’s dealings with North American Indian populations,” says Lewinski. “But the RCMP also had a reputation for being compassionate and concerned about the Indians. This earned them a tremendous amount of respect and was able to neutralize the red.”
The RCMP finally got rid of the red uniform for day-to-day duty assignments, Lewinski recalls, because it was considered “too high profile.”
The study of Olympian athletes is reported in the May 19, 2005 issue of the journal Nature.