The Annals of Sports Psychology: Winners Wear Red

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Success has a color, and the color is red. In fact, a recent study confirms previous reports that athletes wearing red uniforms win competitions more often than opponents dressed in other colors. Researchers are now hard at work deciphering the mystery behind this puzzling phenomenon.

Which team dominates Germany's Bundesliga? Bayern Munich, of course. Who won the 2008 Champions League? Manchester United. Who was the most dominant NBA player in recent memory? Michael "His Airness" Jordon, no doubt. And what do these teams and athletes share in common? Red uniforms for home games. But could their success really have anything to do with the color of their jerseys?

On several occasions in recent years, researchers have tried to tackle this question -- with startling results. Russell Hill and Robert Barton, two researchers at the University of Durham, have systematically analyzed all the matchups of the 2004 Athens Olympics. According to their findings, wearing red did in fact make a slight difference during those summer games, at least when it came to boxing, Taekwondo and wrestling.

These types of one-on-one combatant sports are the most suitable for producing reliable statistics. A major reason for this is the fact that the opponents in all three sports are randomly assigned a color -- either red or blue -- for their clothing or protective gear. According to Hill and Barton's report, published in the journal Nature in 2005, athletes dressed in red had a measurable advantage. This was particularly the case with Taekwondo (red won in 57 percent of all matchups), following by boxing (55 percent victory quotient) and wrestling (Greco-Roman style, 52 percent; freestyle, 53 percent).

Red Is a Kicker's Best Friend

In an article published in the Journal of Sports Sciences in early 2008, Hill and Barton expanded their analysis to include the teams of England's Premier League from 1947 to 2003. Their statistical analysis determined that football teams wearing red had a disproportionately higher rate of both winning home games and securing the title than teams wearing either yellow or orange. The findings were unequivocal: Three out of the four most successful English clubs donned red jerseys for home games: Manchester United ("The Red Devils"), FC Liverpool ("The Reds") and FC Arsenal.

Not everyone trusts these numbers, though. Matthias Sutter and Martin Kocher, two economics researchers at Austria's University of Innsbruck, have their doubts about whether this victory-red hypothesis can hold water elsewhere in the football world. The two carefully analyzed 306 games in the 2000-2001 season of Germany's Bundesliga, concluding that neither red nor any other particular color led a team to more victories. "If anything," Sutter says about the results of the Premier League study, "what we've got here is a chicken-and-the-egg problem." For many years, he admits, the most successful teams have worn read. But what came first, he asks: the success or the red outfits? Or both at the same time?

Signaling Dominance

This issue illustrates one of the fundamental problems encountered in the interpretation of statistics. To conclude that red enhances the odds of victory is in no way borne out by comprehensive analysis. With the exception of the Bundesliga, the data reveals a much more frequent correlation between color and victory, but one that is still far from being a causal link. For example, in the case of the Premier League, it's also conceivable that red is the favorite color of particularly ambitious men. When these red-loving men are dominant in a football club, then it influences not only the team's success but also its preferred jersey color.

Despite these counterarguments, Hill and Barton are still convinced that red really does make you more successful. Their certainty might have something to do with their shared background as anthropologists. "From studies on animals and humans, we know that red is used to signal dominance," Hill told SPIEGEL ONLINE. "Among humans, rage is associated with reddening skin, which results from increased blood circulation," the researchers wrote in their article for Nature .

Red Hurts Thought

According to Barton, red most likely helps a football team because of its psychological affect on both teams. He and Hill also posit that, over the years, red might also attract more fans to a particular team, which in turn can make them even stronger. In particular, the anthropologists point to the experiments of psychologists that have shown that even looking at the color red reduces a human's capacity to perform.

Researchers at the University of Rochester in New York State and at the Ludwig Maximilian University of Munich have recently looked into this issue. As part of a 2007 study published in the Journal of Experimental Psychology, Andrew Elliott and his colleagues subjected participants to a series of tests aimed at examining the relation "between red and performance attainment." The results of the test gave clear evidence that exposure to red "impairs performance" and can trigger an "avoidance motivation," in much the same way as a stop sign.

Referees Favor Red

The most recent attempt to solve this mystery was made by sports psychologists at the University of Münster in Germany. According to Bernd Strauss and the other authors of a study published this year in the journal Psychological Science, when it comes to Taekwondo at least, winning with red has a lot to do with the referee. In particular, the study found that, despite equal performances, athletes wearing red so-called "trunk protectors" were given higher scores than those wearing blue.

As part of their study, the researchers had 42 experienced Taekwondo referees watch two videos, each of which included 11 fight sequences. In the first video, one athlete wears a red trunk protector while the other wears a blue one. The second film shows the same exact scenes, but with the athletes' colors switched by digitally manipulating the tapes. In the end, although the referees witnessed the same exact matches, they scored the performances differently: On average, athletes scored 13 percent more points when they were wearing red than blue.

In fact, the color's effect on scoring became even greater the closer the athletes were in terms of strength. And the greater the degree of difference in terms of their skill levels, the lower the chances were that the referees would score the videos differently. "It's really about an effect that is neither conscious nor, of course, desired by referees," says Strauss. "But it's really not so easy to outsmart our perceptions."

Giving Red the Red Card?

So, if red really does affect how referees call matches, how are we ever going to guarantee fairness? One simple way, of course, would be to choose colors for the competitors in one-on-one sports that have no effect on the outcome of the match. But that might not be as easy as it sounds. Take judo, for example, another sport which randomly allots a color -- either blue or white -- to competitors. In a 2005 study published in Nature, researchers from the University of Newcastle in Britain analyzed all the judo matches at the 2004 Athens Olympics. There conclusion: athletes who wore blue had a slight advantage.

Martial arts are one thing, but it might be quite a bit harder to change the color combinations used for football jerseys. If chance or a team of psychologists determines a team's jersey colors, the fans just might storm the barricades -- and with good reason. For some teams, giving up red might just put them at a disadvantage.

Either way, it sure would be easier to test the theory's validity if only Bayern Munich -- which has won 11 of the last 20 Bundesliga titles -- would blow it in the finals a few times.

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