Red is hot. Red is sexy. Red is….well, let’s just say it’s known for its arousal properties. But when it comes to achievement contexts—i.e situations where your competence is to be judged and evaluated, with the possibility of success or failure—red can lead to disaster.
Why and how this happens is the topic of a paper ((Color and Psychological Functioning: The Effect of Red on Performance Attainment, 2007)) by University of Rochester and University of Munich researchers which suggests that a brief perception of red can impair performance on achievement tasks. The reason for this is that often, red is associated with danger of failure. For example as a child, you come to learn this when your homework is returned with incorrect answers marked in red. As an adult, the association continues with red signs warning you of dangers and stoplights telling you to stop for instance. The authors of the paper also suggest that perhaps the association of red with danger is a “deeply ingrained predisposition” that has been with man through the evolutionary process, only to then manifest in our culture as a sign for danger or failure (stoplights, marks in red ink etc.).
In six key experiments by the researchers of the study, they found that even the briefest of exposures to the colour red, prior to a candidate taking an important test, led to a significantly poorer performance compared to colours such as green and black. This effect happened without the participants being consciously aware of it.
Wondering why Manchester United, or teams wearing red usually have an edge in competition? The answer could be that red brings up thoughts on danger of failure and a focus on this, or on a motivation to avoid failure, hinders performance by producing anxiety which can become quite distracting.
So when heading to an exam, or an important job interview, do not wear red. If you come across it, consciously move your thoughts away from any notion of failure (as there will be an unconscious phenomenon working against you) and instead focus 100% on the task at hand.