‘Wear red, get noticed’ – and other subtle psychological ways colour affects us

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Red makes a big impact, studies show. Twinsterphoto/shutterstock

Geoff Beattie, Edge Hill University

I notice that my office is mainly colourless, or perhaps more accurately insipid in colour, a dull brown, the colour of old tea – the desk, the shelves, the table. A once bright red bromeliad now dead or dying on the window sill has turned a dull autumn brown. Beyond that, outside the window, is the dull brown of autumn on a wet, windy day.

One object stands out: the bright red university diary. It’s the first thing that I notice when I enter the room. It draws my eyes to it involuntarily, like a red traffic light or the red marks on an essay. I go to reach for it but pause: perhaps it’s the week ahead that I can’t cope with, the new term, the tutorials, the lectures, the meetings, the grant application deadlines, the proofs of my new book. Surely it’s not the colour of the object itself, the red cover that is a non-conscious warning for me to stop?

A great deal has been written over the years about the effects of colour on human psychology, and this has been carried into the popular imagination in various ways, from guidelines on how to decorate your house to ensure a calm and peaceful space, to how to attract a partner, or even win at sport.

The appeal of colour

Some of the earliest applied research into colour was carried out by Louis Cheskin at the Color Research Institute of America founded in the 1930s. A pioneer in the field of marketing psychology, Cheskin argued that consumers make automatic and non-conscious assessments of products based not just on the product itself but derived from all its characteristics as determined by each of the senses. One major sensory feature is colour. These non-conscious sensory impressions from the product or its packaging, Cheskin argued, can be transferred directly onto our perception of the product itself, including its perceived value, price and quality.

In one study, outlined in Vance Packard’s 1957 classic The Hidden Persuaders, housewives tried out three different detergents in packaging that was either yellow, blue, or blue with a splash of yellow. The verdict was that the detergent in the yellow box was too harsh for their clothes (“It ruined them”, many of the respondents complained), whereas the detergent in the blue box was considered not strong enough, leaving the clothes still dirty. The detergent in the packaging coloured blue with splashes of yellow was “just right”. The detergent was, however, identical in all three. It seems that non-conscious associations, manipulated by the marketer, could determine our preferences.

Packard also described how changing the colour of the 7-Up can, with a 15% increase in the amount of yellow on the can but no alteration to the drink itself, led to complaints that the flavour had become “too lemony”, the consumers having been non-consciously primed with the lemon association through the yellow on the can. This research questioned the model of consumers as rational agents, and started to delve more deeply into how the human mind works. But this was science driven by profit.

Wear red, get noticed

Contemporary psychological research seems to support some of these ideas about the effects of colour on perception. In a 2008 study by Andrew Elliot and Daniela Niesta from the University of Rochester, men rated pictures of women as “more attractive” and “more sexually desirable” when the photos were presented for only a few seconds on a red rather than a white background. However, it didn’t affect women’s perceptions of the attractiveness of other women, nor whether men saw the women in the pictures as “likeable”, “kind” or “intelligent”. They concluded:

Human and nonhuman male primates respond to red … As much as men might like to think that they respond to women in a thoughtful, sophisticated manner, it appears that at least to some degree, their preferences and predilections, are, in a word, primitive.

Some have taken these kinds of results to suggest that women (and men) should exploit the unconscious in subtle ways to make themselves more attractive to the opposite sex – but it is the subtle red watch strap rather than the red dress that the study suggests would be most effective.

‘Don’t mind me, I’m just quietly asserting my dominance.’ Viorel Sima/Shutterstock

The colour red, is also an evolutionarily-evolved sign of dominance among males in the animal kingdom, which appears also to have effects in humans. A study by Russell Hill and Robert Barton from the University of Durham found that sports teams that wore red kits were more likely to win than those that did not.

Nature’s warning

But, of course, dominance and sex are not the only biological and symbolic associations of the colour red. Red is also associated with danger and warning. Another study by Andrew Elliott and colleagues outlined the effects of the colour red on children’s test performance. They found that when children were left to solve anagrams for five minutes, if their participant number was written in red they solved on average less than 4.5, but when their number was written in green or black, they solved on average more than 5.5. They also examined the effects of altering the colour of the cover of an IQ test booklet, finding that when the cover was red the children performed less well.

Subsequent measures of brain activity using EEG scans revealed that those working with a red-covered booklet showed relatively more right frontal lobe activation than those with green or grey test covers. According to the researchers, this sort of activity is associated with avoidance behaviour. They concluded:

The findings suggest that care must be taken in how red is used in achievement contexts and illustrate how colour can act as a subtle environmental cue that has important influences on behaviour.

The Nobel Laureate Daniel Kahneman reinforced a lot of these findings in his best-selling book Thinking Fast and Slow, in which he delineated two systems of thinking: one fast, automatic and non-conscious, the other slow, deliberate and conscious. Colour affects our fast, non-conscious thinking in ways that we are only now starting to understand, with potentially broad implications for education, sport, and all manner of human relations.

The ConversationDoes Manchester United’s home football strip (red) give them an unfair advantage? Some psychologists would no doubt say yes, although this is contested. Is my red diary warning me off, or am I just overworked? I am of course an entirely rational man, but I notice that I’ve chosen a blue diary for next year.

Geoff Beattie, Professor of Psychology, Edge Hill University

This article was originally published on The Conversation. Read the original article.

The psychology behind Trump’s awkward handshake … and how to beat him at his own game

Geoff Beattie, Edge Hill University

Handshakes are meant to be relatively simple affairs, at least in terms of their signalling function. “Shake hands on it,” we are told. “Shake and make up.” They have been used as a civilised greeting for at least 2,500 years. But Donald Trump is now in the process of redefining the handshake, transforming it into the opening salvo in a battle for supremacy.

Handshakes date back at least as far as Ancient Greece – and there are artefacts from that period featuring images of Herakles shaking hands with Athena. Glenys Davies writing in the American Journal of Archaeology said that this particular scene “represents the acceptance of Herakles as an equal by the Gods”.

On other artefacts we find images of Hera, the goddess of women and marriage in Greek mythology, shaking hands with Athena, the goddess of wisdom, craft and war. These handshakes are symmetrical and equal in their execution. The sort of handshake that we would recognise instantly today.

Our common understanding is that the handshake originated as a gesture of peace, demonstrating that the hands are free and not holding a weapon. It is meant to signal cooperation, reflected in the symmetrical nature of the shape of the hands and the movement, not aggressive competition. But tell that to Trump, who uses handshakes as a weapon in his games of one-upmanship.

Indeed, Trump’s handshakes are not acts of peace, solidarity and goodwill, they are something altogether different. His “clasp and yank” handshake has taken many of its recipients by surprise. He pulls them forwards into his personal space, unbalancing them, and putting them at an immediate disadvantage. He knows that images of these greetings will be shown around the world – and that they will make it look as if he is the man in charge.

So potent is his technique that one martial arts school has even come up with advice on how to defend it.

Shaking things up

Consider, for example, Trump’s now infamous handshake with Shinzo Abe, the prime minister of Japan. Trump first presents his hand to Abe palm up, inviting Abe to take the dominant position with his hand on top. But Trump then clasps his counterpart’s hand for a 19-second marathon handshake, patting the back of Abe’s hand in several bursts of three pats. Hand patting like this is not a “comforting gesture” as some might assume. Hand patting, like shoulder touching or back patting, is a dominance signal, asymmetric in its application. Our boss can pat us on the back, we cannot pat them in return. Patting is not marked by the sorts of symmetry that constitute a cooperative handshake.

By the end, Trump’s handshake had completely overturned the initial, submissive gesture, and very much made Abe look like the (rather surprised) junior partner. But then Trump is a reality television star – he knows something about the power of iconic images and how moments such as this are perceived by the public.

In a more polite forum, a handshake should be firm, but not too vigorous, and should involve around three shakes of the hand with a full grip. It should be accompanied by a natural smile that fades slowly and an appropriate verbal greeting with the position of the handshake in the mid-zone between the two individuals.

We do know that people make judgements about others on the basis of their handshake. Research conducted by William Chaplin and colleagues from the University of Alabama, for example, showed that the characteristics of a handshake can provide accurate information about aspects of an individual’s personality.

Chaplin reported that handshakes that were “stronger, more vigorous, longer in duration and associated with more eye contact” tended to show that the individual was more extrovert and outgoing, more open to new experiences and less neurotic and shy. Similarly, in my book Get the Edge: How Simple Changes Will Transform Your Life, I discuss how this briefest of ritualised human contacts can reveal aspects of underlying personality.

Those who are particularly concerned about sending out the right signals when they meet people for the first time do think carefully about how to execute their handshake. It is reported, for example, that John F. Kennedy thought that handshakes were so important that he commissioned a study to determine the most effective varieties to use when greeting other world leaders.


Some politicians, however, are already giving Trump a run for his money, revealing how the president’s infamous handshake can be disarmed. It certainly looks like Canadian prime minister Justin Trudeau prepared himself for handshake war – and we can all learn lessons from how he took Trump on. When they shook hands, Trudeau took hold of Trump’s right shoulder to both steady himself and to stop Trump yanking him forward. And later, when Trudeau shook hands with Trump while they were both seated, Trudeau extended his fingers to signal that he wanted to be released. Together, these signal that Trudeau had at least some control over the course of the interaction. They certainly play out better than Abe’s attempts in the media clips and show that Trump doesn’t hold all the cards.

Trump seemingly believes in using any resource at his disposal to gain some advantage in the political and business worlds. Senior politicians expecting routine and formulaic handshakes have been knocked off guard by Trump’s unpredictable behaviour. They find themselves yanked into his personal space, where it is difficult or impossible for them to make eye contact, or to talk coherently without looking away. This gives Trump an advantage in the game of micro-politics.

His handshakes are clearly all about status rather than solidarity. From a psychological perspective, they are arguably self-serving and egocentric, and demonstrate that, as in many aspects of life, the most important thing to Donald Trump is Donald Trump himself.

The discomfort on Shinzo Abe’s face when his hand was finally released from Trump’s 19-second shake was plain for all to see, but Trump does not seem to care too much for the discomfort of others. If he did, he would not make them ill at ease in such a calculated way.

There’s more to life than handshakes, but they do say an awful lot about the new “leader of the free world”. And if you ever get to meet him, make sure you do your handshake homework first.

The Conversation

Geoff Beattie, Professor of Psychology, Edge Hill University

This article was originally published on The Conversation. Read the original article.

Why I wish I’d listened more to mum

I miss her terribly; she told me that I would. I can’t say that she didn’t warn me. “Your mother should be number one. You’ll regret not taking me out more,” she used to say. Then the emotion and the tears would come. “I’m way down the list; I think that you care more about Louis than you do me.”

Louis was my boxer dog and the object of great envious resentment. “I cannot believe that you let that dog kiss you, you let it slobber all over you,” my mother would say, and I always thought that this complaint was occasioned more by jealousy than by concerns over personal hygiene. Sometimes I felt that Louis could also sense her resentment.
I would ring her every afternoon. I would be sitting in my bright, airy office in a university over in England, the laughter and the chatter of the students in the corridor outside filtering through, in this busy and self-important world. She would be sitting in front of the television in her front room in Belfast, in the middle of the day, retired from the mill now, alone.
She missed the work and the company; never wanting to retire in the first place. The laughter filtering into my office made it sound like I was at a party. “I’m not living anymore, I’m just surviving,” she would say. “I’m lonely all day; you’re having the time of your life.”
I would feel those sharp pangs of guilt that you can anticipate, but can’t avoid. They cannot be dulled even with full expectation.

I had my life, my family, my children, my career and my busy schedule, but she never understood how universities worked, or how you build a career. “What time do you have to be in at? she would ask. “No time really, unless I’ve got lectures or tutorials, but I have to get stuff done. It’s extremely competitive.”

“So, you can go into work whenever you like, but you only come over here to see me once in a blue moon. I’d be ashamed of myself, if I was you.”

I tried to get back home as often as I could and she would visit at Christmas, Easter and the July fortnight, but it would never be enough.

When I did visit, I would often bring a computer with me and that would be the basis for the first argument, as I hoisted the bulking computer in through the front door.
“You’re here to see me, not work. Put that bloody thing away, or I’m not even going to go out with you.” She knew that I would try to mix visits home with work-related activities and occasionally it worked better.

I would take her with me. We went together to a literary awards evening sometime in the Nineties. One of my books had been shortlisted for a literary prize.
My mother had a few drinks at the posh reception and talked to Brian Keenan, who talked in a whisper after all those years locked in a Beirut cellar.
“Speak up, Brian,” she kept saying to him. “I can hardly hear you; speak up, Brian, for God’s sake.”
Brian kissed her when they announced his name for the prize for his book An Evil Cradling. “He deserved it,” she said to me, “for all those years sitting in the dark in that bloody cellar. He told me all about it. I told him that I knew what it was like. I said that I never get out, either.”

We saw Andrew Motion across the room. He later became the poet laureate. He had published my first non-academic book and I’d had a drink with him in some pub in London near his publishers. I told my mother that I knew him.

He nodded almost grudgingly as he passed. She noticed it, too, and then she glanced at me to see my reaction. “He’s not a very good friend of yours then, is he?” said my mother. “I notice that you haven’t got many good friends, not like when you were a wee boy and all your friends would hang about our hall laughing and joking.”

We walked across town afterwards to a piano bar and she told the man playing the piano that it was her birthday to get a free bottle of champagne, even though it was not strictly true (or even approximately true). He played Please Release Me for her as a special request. Some girls at the next table on a hen night were getting a little rowdy, one wanted to kiss me because she was getting married. “Leave him alone,” said my mother. “The young hussies these days have no shame.”

A few years later, we both went to another awards ceremony held in the City Hall. My novel The Corner Boys had been shortlisted for the same prize. I had been told that Chris Patten would be there to hand out the award and that Gerry Adams would be attending the function.
“I’ll have one or two things to say to old Gerry,” my mother had warned me, “after what he’s put us through. There’s no two ways about that. I’ll have a wee word in his ear all right.”
She was looking forward to the event, but I was worried about what she might say, all that day she had been getting excited talking about prize-givings of the past.

“When you and your brother were young,” she said, “you won all the prizes in St Mark’s from the JTC and the CLB. My neighbours used to tell me that it wasn’t worth going, because the Beattie boys won everything that was going.”
I had to get out of the house so I went shopping and then I realised that I was going to be late, so I rang her from town and told her to make her own way there. I would go straight from town.

I stood at the back door of the City Hall waiting for her and saw the Call-a-Cab car drive in past security.
The driver nodded at me, as if he recognised me, and got my mother’s wheelchair out of the boot. She was still chatting away to him.

“Do you remember playing ‘foot in the bucket’ when you were young?” she asked him after he had opened the door to let her out. “That’s the problem with young people nowadays; they don’t know how to keep themselves amused.”
I pushed her into the City Hall slowly and carefully. The other guests all stood around in the centre of the room, holding their wine glasses delicately. I noticed that the men all seemed to be wearing grey suits and all the women elegant black dresses with silver brooches.

Then there was me in my puffa jacket and my mother in her pink anorak, with Topshop bags from that day’s shopping, balancing on her wheelchair. She was wearing the wig that the dog liked to chase around the house.
“I’m starving,” she said, after we had pushed through the crowd. “I haven’t had any dinner. Go and get us some of them, whatever they are.”

I went in search of food and got my mother a large glass of white wine. “I’m thirsty,” she said. “I haven’t had a drink all day.” The speeches were starting, there were television cameras dotted around the room and every now and then, some small circular area would suddenly light up in intense, white light.

Chris Patten’s report on the future of the RUC was just about to be released and the cameras were there partly to capture a few comments from him. The other contestants and their coterie of friends stood in a group in the middle of the floor. The women in their expensive dresses adorned with silver bracelets in intricate Celtic patterns, looked appreciatively up at him, my mother was concentrating on the food in front of her.

The waitress with the nibbles had found us on our own, stranded from everybody else. “I’m starving,” said my mother to her, “these little things don’t fill you up.” “Here you are, love,” said the waitress, handing her a larger plate, as Patten started to speak. “This is my son,” said my mother. “He’s up for the prize tonight, you know, but he won’t win it. You have to be in the know to win prizes and he doesn’t know anybody.” “Yes, but it’s nice to be invited,’ said the woman with the nibbles. “Of course,” said my mother, “that’s what I tell him. You should be proud just to be invited to the City Hall.”

“Exactly,” said the waitress.

“Have you met Gerry Adams?” said my mother. “Oh yes,” said the waitress, “he’s a regular. Him and Martin, they’re never out of here, that is when they’re not up in Stormont running around as if they own the place.”
My mother was sitting in her wheelchair making blowing noises. “Who would have believed it?” she said. “They’re running the country and there’s no two ways about that. They got everything they wanted. The Protestants got nothing.”

I stood there against the wall. I noticed that there were black stains up the outside of the arms of my jacket. I spent some time just staring at them and trying to rub them off with spit. The waitress had gone to get her some more wine.
“You’re too backward,” my mother said to me. “Go and talk to those men over there. Tell them that you’re a professor.”

The waitress had returned with more wine and more food and overheard this.
“Is he a professor?” asked the waitress. “He is indeed. But you couldn’t tell to look at him,” said my mother. “Are those his bags?” said the waitress. “In the old days you wouldn’t have been allowed in here with bags like that.”
“Does Gerry ever try to bring big bags in with him?” asked my mother and they both started laughing. “Is Gerry not coming then?” asked my mother, who I think was disappointed in some strange way.

Chris Patten looked in our direction. It was probably the laughter that attracted his attention. He said something about my novel. I couldn’t hear what it was. “What’s in those mushroom pates?” asked my mother.
“Mushrooms,” I said.
“What else?” she asked, irritated. “Do you know, you can’t get a sensible answer out of you sometimes.”

The waitress went off to fetch some more drinks. We were still standing in the same spot. I made some pretence and then pushed my mother’s chair so that she was now facing the wall, with her back to Chris Patten.
“I can’t see,” she said. “There’s nothing to see,” I said. The waitress had returned. “Are you not watching what’s going on?” she asked. Chris Patten was just about to announce the winner. “And the winner is …” he said.

I didn’t hear the name, but I knew that it wasn’t mine. “Never mind,” said my mother. “Never mind,” said the waitress. “Have some more of these lovely mushroom pates.”
We could hear the chatter from across the room. “What time does the bar close?” asked my mother. “It’s open as long as you like,” said the waitress. “Within reason,” she added. “Let’s have a few more wee drinks then,” said my mother. “And for God’s sake, go and speak to some of those people. You’re never going to win a prize like that if you don’t speak to people,” she said. “That’s his problem, he never speaks, except to bloody women. But then he’s had a lot of practice at that.”

I wandered off to find a toilet and I tried smiling at one or two people, unsuccessfully. My mother had decided that it was time to go. “By the way, is there a wee phone around here for us to call Call-a-Cab when all this drink finishes?” she asked the waitress. “We don’t want to be stranded here all bloody night with nothing to eat.”
I went to ring Call-a-Cab, but they were engaged, so I just hung about by the public telephone at the back door and then I bumped into a female TV producer from Dublin, who just smiled at me and asked me if I had enjoyed the proceedings. It turned out that she was there to make some arts-based programme about the evening for RTE, but all the interviews she needed were now in the can. I blurted out that my book was on the shortlist. It was too late to be relevant to anything; it was a moment for chitchat, nothing more.
“Really?” she said, and I looked at her expression and I regretted saying it even more. “It’s a pity that we didn’t get to talk earlier. Oh, here’s my car, I’m just off.” I smiled at her and walked off before doubling back to ring Call-a-Cab once more. Luckily, I got through this time.

I pushed my mother out into the back courtyard of the City Hall to wait for the taxi. She smiled over at the security man and he smiled back at her. “I think that your man thinks that he’s scored,” she said. I wasn’t sure whether she was joking or not, so pretended I hadn’t heard.

We hung about outside in the cold, night air, a woman in a wheelchair and a man in a grubby coat. It was the professor and his proud mother going back home to the turn-of-the-road from the literary prize-giving, the professor who had departed his working-class roots, but not quite arrived anywhere else yet.
These are the moments I remember; I cling on to them because that is what there is. They are even sadder at this time of year with Mother’s Day tomorrow, which was always special.
Of course, I would send her flowers every Mother’s Day and ring her to make sure that they had arrived. “They are lovely,” she would say. “I’ve shown them to all my neighbours, they’re all very jealous.” And, at that moment, I would feel ecstatic.

Then she would add, “It would have been much nicer if you’d brought them in person.”
But it is that time of the year. I would love to pick up the phone and just order the flowers and then ring that old number of hers in Belfast just to hear her say … anything. She was right a lot of the time and, sometimes, I wished that I’d listened more in that busy, busy life of mine.

Geoffrey Beattie’s memoir, Protestant Boy, is published by Granta

This post was originally published by the Belfast Telegraph.

The televised political debate: Body language under the microsope

In 1960 politics changed forever.

It was the first televised political debate in the U.S. between John F. Kennedy and Richard Nixon.

The significance of the power of television in politics is demonstrated by the fact that those who listened to the debate on the radio thought that Nixon had won, whereas those who watched it on television thought that Kennedy was the clear winner.

These behaviours sent powerful signals to the television audience who made their own judgments about the suitability of each of these candidates to lead the ‘Free World’ at a critical time. And this debate revealed another great truth – once people make a judgment of this kind, it is hard to reverse that effect. Nixon did much better in subsequent television debates but it was too late. The damage was clearly done that first night.

You can see why there was so much argument and discussion in advance of the recent Leaders’ Debate itself – a great debate before the debate even started. The final compromise was a seven-person debate, with only the leader of the DUP excluded. Of course, this was going to be more unpredictable than previous formats used in the UK and brought a new set of social dynamics to bear on the process. It was going to be harder for the politicians involved to maintain their rehearsed and controlled performances in terms of their body language.

There are, after all, many behaviours that might allow the public to see behind the masks of the modern politician, like, for example, fleeting, unconscious micro-expressions revealing their underlying emotional state, be it anger, fear, disgust or contempt, where these micro expressions emerge most clearly when the masking smiles fade.

Then there is the possibility of gesture-speech mismatches when the content of the speech and the message contained in the gesture differ, but where the unconscious gesture may give some insight into the politician’s underlying thoughts. Each politician would also be trying to get their voice heard, and stand out in the debate, but there are gender differences in how politicians can do this. ‘Overlaps’ are an effective form of interruption used by individuals high in dominance and these can tell us something about the various participants in the debate.

So what did we learn that night apart from the fact that David Cameron lip licks and frowns when he is stressed, whereas Nicola Sturgeon has a very high blink rate at critical moments, indicating high levels of stress, even when her voice shows little sign of this. Or, that Ed Milliband shows lots of precision gestures to signal that he has a good grip on economic and other issues, and Nick Clegg displays lots of ‘casual’ gestures reminiscent of Tony Blair. Or that Nigel Farage displays many different facial expressions, especially when he is under attack, or that both Natalie Bennett and Leanne Wood are quite prepared to glance down at their notes, perhaps as a deliberate signal that ideas are more important in the end than appearances, as if content and style can be easily separated in this way.

Maybe, it was the higher order things that we learned, like the fact that Ed Milliband’s over-coached body language looks far too unnatural when it is extended beyond a mere soundbite, and that in real life as the topic changes, we expect to see a different set and pattern of gestures emerging, rather than the mere repetition of the same controlled set of gestures.

In other words, we want to see nonverbal behaviour that can reveal something rather than being designed and rehearsed to reveal nothing. Only his micro-expressions gave us any glimpse into his personality, character or psychological state. We also have a memory, and that Nick Clegg returning to the nonverbal style of 2010 looks like a deliberate attempt to recapture something. Or, that when it comes to interruption battles between politicians, even between politicians and the Chair, Julie Etchingham, Cameron usually comes out on top, and he often overlaps in a very dominant style. But ‘dominance’ rather than statesman-like ‘authority’ might not have been what he was hoping to signal.

But perhaps the most important thing that we learned that night was that the old two-party politics, Labour-Conservative, with attack, attack, attack the other, at any cost, may have gone forever. That was why Nicola Sturgeon appeared so effective: clever, flexible, committed, a different vision, a strong woman in a world of domineering men, body language that was more open and itself flexible, and which supported her message rather than being designed to say nothing at all, of any substance. That was why she stood out. We recognised in her body language that was believable and meaningful in a world of rehearsed control, and suppressed emotions and thoughts. And all that with a blink rate which told us something about the pressure she was really under.