When the Chinese gymnasts brought home numerous gold medals at the Beijing Olympics, many commentators cried foul. They said the girls were too young; the Chinese team was cheating. While that claim may eventually turn out to have been correct — the IOC is investigating — nobody mentioned what could have been an even more important competitive edge: The Chinese gymnasts were wearing red.
A paper published last month in Psychological Science reports that referees and umpires subconsciously favor competitors in red uniforms. The experiment was clever: The scientists showed 42 experienced tae kwon do referees video clips of five different male competitors. Each clip featured one athlete in red and one in blue. At first, the referees were shown the original videos and asked to score the match. Then they were shown the same clips but with the colors digitally swapped, so that the athlete originally wearing red was now wearing blue and vice versa. This single alteration had a significant impact on the outcome, with competitors dressed in red scoring, on average, 13 percent more points than their opponents in blue.
The experiment builds on a 2005 paper demonstrating that athletes wearing red in the Athens Olympics consistently outperformed their blue-clad adversaries. While some scientists speculated that the effect was due to the color red’s causing athletes to compete with more aggression — red is biologically associated with virility and hostility — the new data suggest that the improved performance is largely a result of referee bias.
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