Do Red and Blue Uniforms Matter in Football and Handball Penalties?

Author:Krenn, Bjoern
Position::Research article - Report


Color plays a ubiquitous role in the individual and societal life of human beings. However, little is known about its impact on psychological aspects like cognition, emotion or motivation. Only in the last decade has research started to investigate the effects of color on psychological functioning more comprehensively and has been able to broaden the scientific discussion about the role of color in human daily life (Changizi, 2010; Elliot, 2015; Elliot and Maier, 2014). Besides a few studies dealing with the impact of Black (Caldwell and Burger, 2011; Frank and Gilovich, 1988; Tiryaki, 2005; Webster et al., 2012), Green (Akers et al., 2012; Krenn, 2015; Lichtenfeld et al., 2012) or Yellow (Chantal and Bernache-Assollant, 2015, 2016), the vast majority of studies was focused on the color Red revealing its significance by showing an impact on attractiveness (e.g., Elliot and Niesta, 2008; Elliot and Pazda, 2012; Hesslinger et al., 2015), avoidance and/or approach motivation (e.g., Elliot et al., 2009; Mehta and Zhu, 2009; Meier, et al., 2012) and noteworthy sports competition (Hagemann et al., 2008; Hill and Barton, 2005). However, effect sizes and generalizability of these results turned out low and several studies failed to replicate the reported findings (Elliot, 2015; Elliot and Maier, 2013; Francis, 2013; Lehmann and Calin-Jageman, 2017; Peperkoorn et al., 2016; Steele, 2014). Thus, still many open questions remain and research has barely touched the underlying mechanisms clarifying the impact of color on human behavior.

In 2005 Hill and Barton reported a slight benefit for athletes wearing red (versus blue) by analyzing the results of the Olympic Games in 2004 of boxing, taekwondo and wrestling. They argued an association of the color red with dominance and/or aggression, which might cause beneficial effects in sports for those wearing red. Their assumption built the cornerstone for a row of studies questioning the role of uniform color in sports, even though inconsistent findings were revealed. On the one hand, conducive effects of red were corroborated: Feltman and Elliot (2011) showed that athletes imagining they were wearing red rated themselves as more dominant, but also rated the opponents as more dominant when imagining them wearing red. Boxers and wrestlers were perceived as more aggressive and likely to win when wearing red instead of blue or green uniforms (Krenn, 2015). In addition, Hagemann et al. (2008) revealed a referee's bias towards red-dressed fighters, given that referees tended to award them more points. Also, in association football by investigating the results of the first three divisions in England, a tendency towards teams donning a red uniform winning the most was found (Attrill et al., 2008). On the other hand, several studies reported null results refuting any beneficial impact of red uniforms in combat sports (Carazo-Vargas and Moncada-Jimenez, 2014; Pollet and Peperkoorn, 2013) and football (Garcia-Rubio et al., 2011; Kocher and Sutter, 2008) or rather reported negative outcomes (e.g. harsher tackle judgements in football; Krenn, 2014). Most notably, Allen and Jones (2014) found in an exploratory analysis, that teams wearing red at home games succeeded more often in their away games, where they mostly did not wear red: Thus, Attrill et al.'s (2008) reported benefit might be independent of red uniforms and rather be due to specific team characteristics (cf. Allen and Jones, 2014). Hence, the impact of red uniforms in sport seems rather vague and research left many questions unsettled. This conclusion is even substantiated by considering some methodical limitations of the conducted studies (a.o. varying interaction of hue, saturation and lightness; vague categorization of uniform color without incorporating any distractors--e.g. uniform designs, additional color spots, sponsors, numbers; see also Elliot, 2015) as well as their lack of any theory-based approach. Most of the studies were focused on solely detecting any red effect by analyzing experimental data or archival data in several sports but did not claim to profoundly investigate the underlying mechanism of a potential impact of the color red.

In this regard, merely Color-in-Context Theory (Elliot and Maier, 2007, 2014) constituted a broad theoretical framework predicting color impact on psychological functioning. It was suggested that colors may have associations to specific meanings, which may affect psychological functioning without conscious intention or awareness (Elliot and Maier, 2014; Elliot et al., 2007). These associations seem to be built by social learning processes (e.g. Red in traffic signs signifies something important/to be taken care of) and/or biologically-based proclivities (Hill and Barton, 2005; see also Pryke, 2009; Setchell and Wickings, 2005). However, these color-meaning associations were assumed to be contextual (Elliot and Maier, 2014; Elliot et al., 2007; Maier et al., 2009). One color may have different associations, whereas the context in which the color is perceived affects which association(s) is (are) assessed. Exemplarily, the color red was found to increase avoidance behavior in achievement contexts, but enhance approach motivation in romantic contexts (Elliot et al., 2009; Elliot and Niesta, 2008; Mehta and Zhu, 2009; Meier et al., 2012). Thus, context seems to play a crucial role in understanding the relationship between color and psychological functioning (Maier et al., 2009). So far, sports research has not challenged this assumption, implying a universal achievement context in sports. Any differing situational cues of sports were ignored, whereas past research already indicated discriminative characteristics and associations (Koivula, 2001; Maxwell et al., 2009; Pedersen, 2007; Seungmo et al., 2008). However, the differential context of various sports or rather the differing experimental approaches (e.g. lab versus field study) may provide a potential moderator affecting color's impact. In this regard, studies questioning color's role within the specific context of penalty kicks in football revealed interesting findings.

At a penalty kick a player individually faces a goalkeeper in the penalty area, representing a face-to-face situation. The goalkeeper may affect penalty taker's attention by assuming a certain posture, like choosing his position or showing specific movements (Noel et al., 2015; Wood and Wilson, 2010). Following this, wearing a specific uniform color may affect penalty taker's or goalkeeper's behavior by attracting more (or less) attention (Greenlees et al., 2008; Memmert et al., 2013). Greenlees et al. (2008) found that English goalkeepers rated red-clad penalty takers more competent and reported lower expectancies of saving penalties against them in comparison to white-clad penalty takers. In addition, facing a goalkeeper wearing red resulted in fewer goals being scored than facing a goalkeeper wearing blue, green or yellow (Greenlees et al., 2013). Thus, both studies suggest a benefit of red uniforms in football's context of penalty kicks. In contrast, Furley et al. (2012) did not observe any impact of penalty takers' red uniforms (in comparison to white uniforms) after analyzing a German sample. However, these studies showed different approaches analyzing uniform color mainly in interaction with additional variables (gaze or nonverbal behavior) as well as some methodical limitations restricting the generalizability of their results. They fell short of standardizing color manipulation (controlling for varying saturation and lightness) and large sample sizes (the number of participants ranged from twelve to 40). In addition, they partly showed a limited number of trials (e.g., rating four color manipulated videos) and used footage of players strictly instructed to show a very specific gaze or nonverbal behavior (e.g., gazing 90% of time at the goalkeeper). Thus, more research is needed to broaden the empirical fundament as well as clarify these contradictory findings within the context of penalties in sport.

The current study aimed to deepen our understanding of uniform color's role by taking penalties in team sports into focus: First, any potential benefit of red uniforms in penalty kicks was examined to complement the findings of Greenlees et al. (2013, 2008) and Furley et al. (2012). Second, the chosen experimental approach was transferred to handball penalties representing similar contextual variables like penalties in football (a.o. team sports, face-to-face situation). The comparison of the results was intended to increase generalizability of findings and cast a light on the range of any potential impact of uniform color on penalty situations. By having two similar situations in two different sports any differential impact of uniform color may also help to better understand the basic mechanism of how colors may affect psychological functioning and athletic performance. In the first experiment, participants had to rate color-manipulated video sequences (red versus blue uniforms) of penalty takers in football. In the second study, participants rated football and handball goalkeepers preparing themselves to save a penalty as well as penalty takers in handball. In dependence on studies in combat sports (e.g., Dreiskaemper et al., 2012; Hill and Barton, 2005) the colors of red and blue were focused questioning a potential transfer of the reported results in combat sports to the different context of football and handball penalties.


In the first experiment, video clips showing a football player taking a penalty were recorded and color-manipulated. The clips ended when the player struck the ball. In two created versions of the same footage--one in which a player wore a red jersey and red shorts and one in which he wore a blue jersey and blue shorts--participants rated the player's level of confidence to score and the expected...

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