When referees see red, they don’t get angry. They may actually favor the competitor in scarlet attire, a new study suggests. A 2005 study in the journal Nature found that athletes who wore red in combat sports (such as tae kwon do or wrestling) in the 2004 Athens Olympics out-performed their opponents wearing blue. The authors of that study suggested that the color red might give a psychological edge to the red-clad athlete, because red is a color associated with dominance and aggressiveness. They suggested that either the red attire boosted those feelings in the athlete wearing them or that they intimidated his opponent by suggesting those qualities. But psychologist Norbert Hagemann, of the University of Münster in Germany, and his colleagues disagreed with these conclusions, saying that the authors had left out one major component of these sports: the referees. "Referees have a very strong influence in this sort of sport," Hagemann said. Often, events in a sport happen too fast for a referee to accurately judge them, because the visual system simply can't process that quickly, he explained. Hagemann and his colleagues suspected that the better performance of the red-clad opponent was in reality a "subconscious bias" for the color on the part of the referees. To test this idea, the researchers showed 42 experienced tae kwon do referees video clips of sparring rounds of five different male competitors of similar abilities. First they were shown the original videos, with one opponent in red gear, the other in blue; then, they were shown the same clips digitally altered so that the colors were reversed (the refs were unaware of the color switch). On the whole, competitors in red scored an average of 13 percent more points than their opponents in blue. Athletes who started out in blue were awarded more points when they later appeared in red, and those who started out in red received fewer points when in blue. The study's findings are detailed in the August issue of the journal Psychological Science. Hagemann told LiveScience that this finding suggests some sort of unconscious bias toward the color red on the part of the referees. This bias could stem from perceiving red as a more dominant, aggressive color, or red could simply better attract the eye, Hagemann said. The bias only seems to crop up in sports such as tae kwon do where competitors are being judged at the same time and referees decisions are more influential on how points are decided. While he doesn't expect the Olympics to shed the traditional red and blue protective gear for tae kwon do opponents, he does suggest that referees be given electronic aids to help in their decision making. For example, force detectors could be attached to the gear to more easily determine when a hit is made. These gadgets won't appear in the current Olympics in Beijing, but Hagemann hopes they might be in use by the 2012 London Olympics.
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Andrea Thompson is an associate editor at Scientific American, where she covers sustainability, energy and the environment. Prior to that, she was a senior writer covering climate science at Climate Central and a reporter and editor at Live Science, where she primarily covered Earth science and the environment. She holds a graduate degree in science health and environmental reporting from New York University, as well as a bachelor of science and and masters of science in atmospheric chemistry from the Georgia Institute of Technology.