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Does the color of Olympians’ clothing affect competition outcomes?

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

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.

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.

“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.

Comments (3)

  1. Submitted by Pat Borzi on 08/07/2012 - 01:47 pm.

    The clothes too?

    Susan, there’s another piece to this — the flap over Douglas’s hair. Here’s a good summary:

  2. Submitted by Dennis Tester on 08/07/2012 - 02:59 pm.

    Football helmets

    There was a movement several years ago to change to dark-colored football helmets from white or light-colored ones. Studies had shown that opposing teams were more intimidated facing players wearing dark-colored helmets versus white ones.

    Off the top of my head, I can remember that some of the teams that made the switch at the time included:

    University of Minnesota
    Northwestern University

    San Diego Chargers
    Buffalo Bills
    Denver Broncos
    Philadelphia Eagles
    (LA) St. Louis Rams

    A few years later, a study came out that suggested that having black somewhere in your uniform mix of colors had a similar affect. The North Stars were one of the first teams to put black into their uniforms and went to the Stanley Cup finals the first year they did, losing to a team, the Pittsburgh Penguins that had even more black in their uniform than they did.

  3. Submitted by Ray Schoch on 08/07/2012 - 06:17 pm.

    Blue vs. blue

    An interesting piece.

    Mr. Tester’s observation holds for other sports, as well. When potential Colorado Rockies fans were choosing colors for their new MLB franchise back in the 1990s, they went with purple and black, I think largely for the intimidation factor of black. The team regularly wears black jersey with only a little purple decoration. Their alternative jersey, which the team refers to as purple, is in fact a royal blue, and isn’t even close to the purple used in the trim on other team items.

    When the high school where I taught and coached opened decades ago, our adopted colors were royal blue (a bright, electric blue) and silver. Years later, a new athletic director decided, as Mr. Tester has suggested, that a darker color would be more “intimidating” to opponents. Accordingly, the football and basketball teams got new uniforms with jerseys that were almost, but not quite, black. As far as I could tell, the uniform color had no effect on the teams’ performance, but I wasn’t really trying to make that association.

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