Athletes get more points by making referees see red

By Ed Yong | August 10, 2008 12:00 pm

Blogging on Peer-Reviewed ResearchFor a sportsman, sometimes pay to have the referee seeing red. In some sports, a simple red garment can give an athlete a competitive advantage because the striking hues draws the focus of the referee.  With a delightfully simple but beautifully crafted experiment, Norbert Hagemann at the University of Munster found that refs have a tendency to award more points to red-garbed competitiors.

Three years ago, Russell Hill and Robert Barton found that in boxing, tae kwon do and wrestling, contestants who wore red are more likely to win their bouts. They reasoned that red – the colour of anger and aggression – gives athletes who don it a psychological boost that brings victory that much closer.

An interesting idea, but a later study by Candy Rowe showed that there’s nothing special about red. She found that in judo, where players wear either blue or white suits, it’s blue that grants the advantage. Her theory was that white suits are brighter than the blue ones and more strongly contrasted against the background. That gives the blue competitors a edge when it comes to following and anticipating their opponents’ moves.

But Hagemann rejects both ideas. His explanation has nothing to do with the players at all, and everything to do with people who don’t take part but wield massive influence over the outcomes of competitive sports – the referees. They’re frequently forced to make very difficult decisions under less-than-ideal conditions. Under these tough circumstances, small biases in their perceptions – like a tendency to look at the more striking colour – may come into play.

Round One – FIGHT!

To test this idea, Hagemann and colleagues chose recruited 42 seasoned referees who, between them, had over 320 years of experience at judging tae kwon do matches. The judges watched one of two sets of videos clips, showing matches between contestants who wore red or blue gear. Both sets of clips were completely identical save for one key difference – in one, the experimenters had digitally swapped the colours of the fighters’ clothes.

Taekwondo2.jpgThe referees watched the matches and, following the rules of the World Taekwondo Federation, awarded their points. And when Hagemann tallied up the scores, he found that the red fighters scored on average 13% more points than the blue ones. When a blue competitor was digitally transformed into a red one, his points tended to rise but a red competitor who was turned into a blue one was awarded lower scores. Neither set of clips was given a higher total number of points.

It’s a very neat result – with a bit of digital sleight-of-hand, Hagemann found that referees will assign more points to red-clothed contestants than they would to blue-clothed ones, even if their performance is exactly the same.

Dress to impress

It’s unclear whether this referee bias explains Rowe’s judo results, especially since she suggested that white is the more vivid colour. But Hagemann feels that it can certainly explain the Hill and Barton study where red competitors had a slight edge over white.

In their analysis, the edge bestowed by crimson hues only mattered when contestants were closely matched because only then are the referees’ decisions important enough to tip the scales towards the more vivid contender. If one contestant is clearly superior, referee bias isn’t going to make much of a difference even if one of the pair is wearing yellow with purple polka dots.

It’s also worth noting that this referee effect only really applies to combat sports like tae kwon do and boxing where it’s the ref who actively awards points. In these cases, it may be a good idea to change the rules so that red attire isn’t allowed, or that referee decisions are supplemented with electronic aids.

In team  sports like football, where the referee has more of a role in regulating fair play and punishing foul moves, it’s unlikely to have much effect, so Chelsea need not worry when playing Arsenal. Indeed, in sports like football, it may even be counter-productive to draw the referee’s attention if your primary strategy is to dive towards the pitch in mock agony whenever another player glances in your general direction.   

Reference: Psychological Science; doi to follow

Apparently, there’s a relatively important sporting event going on. To commemorate this minor gathering, here’s the first of two posts to about new (rather well-timed) studies, united by the loose theme of sports and psychology. The second one’s coming on Tuesday.


Comments (8)

  1. Sigmund

    Ed, I’ve seen it quoted in the past that, in England at least, football teams with red in their uniform have won the Premiership or the previous Division One titles much more frequently than other teams. I guess it could be down to chance but I wouldn’t completely discount it as being a factor in team sports.

  2. Thomas

    In football I imagine red or other vivid colors could help because it makes it easier to spot members of your own team making it easier to pass the player in the best position. Admittedly the opposing team will also find it easier to keep track, but I think knowledge about your team mates is more important.

  3. Becca

    Wouldn’t it make more sense to require both competitors to wear red rather than outlaw it? I would assume that these data are suggesting not that red is advantaged, but that judging competitors dressed in blue (or what-have-you) is less accurate. It’s easy to miss lighting fast kicks in Tae Kown Do- it’s harder to imagine experienced judges fabricating extra kicks for red-garbed competitors.
    So unless it would make it more difficult to tell them apart, make them all wear red and enhance the ability of the refs to score everyone.
    Full disclaimer- my sparring gear is red.

  4. Good point Becca.
    Re: football – I think it’s too hard to say. There are historical reasons at work too; many old clubs wore red, and old clubs also tend to be bigger, richer and more successful.

  5. Sigmund: What’s the breakdown of team colours? Because if there are simply more teams with red in their uniform, that would explain the effect as well. šŸ˜‰

  6. Joseph Brenner

    I bet it has more to do with the physiology of rods and cones than the psycology.

  7. Let’s see…Canada’s colours are red and white and as of this comment we have 0 Olympic medals. Also, my home hockey team is the Leafs who wear blue and white and they haven’t won a championship since 1967. Put me down as undecided.

  8. Ana

    Interesting. I personally have never seen nor experienced this. It would be interesting to see if the “experienced” judges were actually USA Taekwondo certified referees (there aren’t many of us) or simply high-ranking black belts. Also interesting to see if these referees were Korean and male or mixed palette of men and women of all ages and ethnicities.


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