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Does the color of Olympians’ clothing affect competition outcomes?

In a study after the Beijing Olympics, red clothing appeared to make a psychological difference in the outcome, but not for the reasons suggested in an earlier study.

Gabrielle Douglas performing her floor exercise during the women's individual all-around gymnastics final last Thursday.
REUTERS/Brian Snyder

While appearing on a Fox news show over the weekend, conservative radio host and Tea Party activist David Webb bemoaned the fact that 16-year-old Gabby Douglas won her Olympics gold medal in gymnastics last week while wearing pink rather than red, white and blue.

Webb claimed Douglas’ outfit — and that of the entire U.S. Olympics team — wasn’t sufficiently patriotic.

My first thought when I read of Webb’s comments was this: Could he possibly have made a more petty and ridiculous complaint about an astonishing young athlete like Douglas, who just won a top honor for herself and her country? (Apparently, yes. He also said the U.S. teams’ color choices reflected a “soft anti-Americanism feeling that Americans can’t show their exceptualism” at the Olympics.)

That said, whether athletes wear red, white or blue may make a small but significance difference in Olympic competion, at least according to some research.

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But it has nothing to do with stirring up patriotism.

British psychologist Tom Stafford of the University of Sheffield summarizes this research in an article he wrote for the BBC at the start of the London Olympics. As he also points out in that article, the research has a twist ending — one “that serves as a timely reminder that we should always be wary of neat explanations for psychological phenomena.”

Like Stafford, I think it’s this aspect of the research — particularly its lesson that correlation and causation in scientific studies are two very different things — that makes it most interesting.

Different findings

As Stafford explains, two studies conducted at the 2004 Olympic Games in Athens came up with two different findings in regard to the color of the athletes’ clothing and their performance in their sports. One study, which looked at the sports of tae kwon do, boxing and wrestling, found that competitors who wore red clothing or body protection had a slightly higher chance of taking home the gold when compared with those who wore blue. The authors of this study suggested that red, which is associated with aggression and dominance, may give athletes a psychological advantage. (This “red effect” has since been shown in other sports, including soccer, according to Stafford.)

A second study — one that looked only at the sport of judo — found that wearing white or blue was more advantageous to Olympic athletes. The reason: visibility. Brighter colors, the authors of that study argued, made a contestant’s movements easier for his or her opponent to see.

Both of these studies, of course, were observational. Because of the way the studies were designed, they could show only a correlation between the color of the clothes the athletes competed in and their eventual wins or losses.  The studies could not prove that wearing a paricular color caused their chances of winning to improve. Other factors not controlled for by the studies’ authors might also be involved.

The issue got resolved (somewhat) after the 2008 Beijing Olympics with a different kind of study — and in a very interesting way. Here’s Stafford’s explanation (warning: British spellings):

A new study suggested that the previous theories based on dominance or visibility of the competitor were wrong. The effect wasn’t anything to do with the effect of colour on the athletes, but instead to do with the effect on the referees. … This study used digital manipulation to show experienced taekwondo referees fights that were identical, except for the colours worn by the contestants. Judging the same fights, referees awarded more points to contestants who had been photoshopped red than to contestants who had been photoshopped blue.

In other words, red clothing did appear to make a psychological difference, but not for the reasons suggested in the first study.

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“This story provides a classic warning for anyone trying to find psychological causes for things: the effect can just as easily be in the observers as in the thing we observe,” writes Stafford.

Now that might have made an interesting and illuminating discussion on Fox News.

You can read Stafford’s article on the BBC website. Stafford also contributes to the wonderful psychology blog MindHacks.