Red in tooth and claw, and football shirts

If you want to win at combative sports, emulate the most aggressive and dominant animals: wear red.

Nick Atkinson
Jun 5, 2005

If you want to win at combative sports, emulate the most aggressive and dominant animals: wear red. That's the message of recent research by Russell Hill and Robert Barton, evolutionary anthropologists at Durham University, UK. Their analysis of the 2004 Olympic Games was reported recently in Nature (435:293, May 19, 2005).

The duo made use of the Olympic Committee's random assignments of red or blue head protectors and other items to closely matched combatants in four sports: boxing, tae kwon do, Greco-Roman wrestling, and freestyle wrestling. The assignments were meant to make matches easier to judge, independent of any research. Across the four sports (and the majority of weight divisions within them), individuals wearing red had significantly better chances of defeating their blue-clad opponents. The effect was most apparent in bouts in which competitors were closely matched in ability, while highly asymmetric contests tended not to be influenced in the same way.

Not everyone trusts the results. Roland Carlstedt, chair of the American Board of Sport Psychology, says the methods are lousy and that no experimental controls were used. In a thorough study of athletic performance, uniform or jersey color should be "virtually irrelevant as a potent predictor of performance," he says, recalling his own research on what separates winners from losers. He considers the paper "interesting speculation, rather than good science."

Manfred Milinski, professor in evolutionary ecology at the Max Planck Institute for Limnology in Plön, Germany, isn't surprised by the findings. He studies mate choice in both sticklebacks and humans. "If color has an influence, I would have bet that red is associated with winning," he says. Milinski notes that wearing artificial red colors might work to manipulate the viewer's thinking by tapping into a preexisting bias to notice an opponent's coloration. Competitors have good evolutionary reasons for avoiding conflict with brightly colored opponents, he argues. Red coloration, at least in nonhuman species, is associated with carotenoids, which are in limited supply, Milinski explains. Carotenoids help fight infection by scavenging free radicals, so only the healthiest, strongest individuals are able to squander them by displaying them in their skin – an evolutionary hypothesis known as the handicap principle.

Hill, who acknowledges that the researchers don't know why red tips the balance, says that in nature, red also correlates with testosterone, aggression, and dominance. "We have preliminary data showing that red is the most prominent color in traditional war paints," he says, pointing to the relationship with the color of blood. "There might be a long history of red in competitive situations."

Hill and Barton have also analyzed the results of the Euro 2004 soccer competition, finding a similar effect for team colors. Anecdotal evidence suggests that the effect holds for team sports as well: Bayern Muenchen, the team that has won the German championship most often, including this year, wears a red stripe. Hill, a Liverpool supporter, was delighted that his team wore their famous red stripe in the Champion League's final competition, which they won late last month.

But at least one bookmaker isn't betting that the findings will change the way odds are calculated. "We concentrate on previous form, the weather, and other similar factors," says a spokesperson for William Hill, one of the world's largest betting companies and no relation to Russell Hill. The spokesperson rattled off a number of recent matches that would seem to disprove Hill and Barton's theory. "The last time someone approached with a system that was going to put us out of business, it turned out to be a disaster," he says. Hill and Barton have not approached any bookies, nor do they suggest theirs is a system for betting. Still, the company was sufficiently intrigued to lay down a challenge, offering €500 in stake money to bet on appropriate matches, to test the duo's hypothesis, with any winnings going to charity. "If only the paper had come out a week or two earlier," Hill mused, "we would have made a killing with William Hill on a UEFA [CSKA Moscow], FA [Arsenal] & Champion's League [Liverpool] red winner prediction."