Study: Want to Look Aggressive? Wear Black

Study: Want to Look Aggressive? Wear Black

Psychology is rich in findings that emerge from complex statistics done on the behavior of college students behaving for money or course credit. It's fair to wonder, then, how well those findings relate to the real world: Maybe a result is peculiar to undergrads, or maybe it's a subtle effect that never matters in real life. If a lab finds a link between aggression and black-colored clothing, it could be that on the street that effect is dwarfed by more important causes, like body size or testosterone levels. Part of the coolness of this study is that it's invulnerable to such doubts. The authors found professionals judged men in black-colored clothes to be more aggressive, and men in white were seen as less so. But these weren't students: They were professional hockey players.


As the paper, in the current issue of Social Psychological and Personality Science, explains, NHL teams all have white jerseys and at least one other, in the team color. And over the past 25 years, teams have changed their colors fairly often. Authors Gregory D. Webster, Geoffrey R. Urland and Joshua Correll saw that this amounted to a natural experiment on the connection between clothing color and aggression.

So they collected penalty statistics on more than 52,000 National Hockey League games between 1984 and 2010, yielding a database of infractions imposed by referees for everything from elbowing and "high-sticking" (2 minutes in the penalty box) to stabbing an opponent with a stick (10 minutes in the box and ejection from the current game and the next one). Then they correlated this data (nearly two years' worth of penalty minutes) with each team's history of uniform changes.

Results: On average, the 30 teams were penalized more for aggression during seasons in which their regular uniform was black (the researchers counted as black any jersey where that color was at least half of the shirt). Moreover, the "black uniform effect" did not hold for "bench minor" infractions, in which players are penalized for errors. It was confined to non-bench-minor infractions, which are issued specifically for being aggressive to another player.

In the 2003-2004 season, the NHL switched its policy so that teams at home games, who had worn white, would now wear their team colors. This permitted Webster et al. to test a second hypothesis: That white clothing is associated with lower levels of aggression, as black is with greater. By comparing home games to away games, the authors found that teams were assessed significantly more penalties for aggression when they wore colored jerseys than when they wore white.

So does this mean that wearing black can make you more aggressive? Not necessarily. As Webster et al. point out, their method can't separate changes in behavior among players from changes in perception among referees. It could be that wearing black makes others see you as aggressive, and that those penalties were imposed because the refs were quicker to act against players in black. Moreover, as they note, it's not a certainty that heavier penalties for a team mean that each individual member is being more aggressive.

All in all, it's a cool paper—not least because the effect it discusses can't be dismissed as an artifact of the lab.

Webster, G., Urland, G., & Correll, J. (2011). Can Uniform Color Color Aggression? Quasi-Experimental Evidence From Professional Ice Hockey Social Psychological and Personality Science, 3 (3), 274-281 DOI: 10.1177/1948550611418535

‘Designer baby’ book trilogy explores the moral dilemmas humans may soon create

How would the ability to genetically customize children change society? Sci-fi author Eugene Clark explores the future on our horizon in Volume I of the "Genetic Pressure" series.

Surprising Science
  • A new sci-fi book series called "Genetic Pressure" explores the scientific and moral implications of a world with a burgeoning designer baby industry.
  • It's currently illegal to implant genetically edited human embryos in most nations, but designer babies may someday become widespread.
  • While gene-editing technology could help humans eliminate genetic diseases, some in the scientific community fear it may also usher in a new era of eugenics.
Keep reading Show less

Designer uses AI to bring 54 Roman emperors to life

It's hard to stop looking back and forth between these faces and the busts they came from.

Meet Emperors Augustus, left, and Maximinus Thrax, right

Credit: Daniel Voshart
Technology & Innovation
  • A quarantine project gone wild produces the possibly realistic faces of ancient Roman rulers.
  • A designer worked with a machine learning app to produce the images.
  • It's impossible to know if they're accurate, but they sure look plausible.
Keep reading Show less

Archaeologists identify contents of ancient Mayan drug containers

Scientists use new methods to discover what's inside drug containers used by ancient Mayan people.

A Muna-type paneled flask with distinctive serrated-edge decoration from AD 750-900.

Credit: WSU
Surprising Science
  • Archaeologists used new methods to identify contents of Mayan drug containers.
  • They were able to discover a non-tobacco plant that was mixed in by the smoking Mayans.
  • The approach promises to open up new frontiers in the knowledge of substances ancient people consumed.
Keep reading Show less

Biden nominates Dr. Eric Lander as cabinet-level science adviser, in U.S. first

Dr. Eric Lander is a pioneer in genomics. What role will he play in the new administration?

Dr. Eric Lander

Credit: William B. Plowman via Getty Images
Politics & Current Affairs
  • Dr. Lander is a mathematician and geneticist who's best known for his leading role in the Human Genome Project.
  • Biden nominated Dr. Lander to head the Office of Science and Technology Policy and also serve as a cabinet-level science adviser, marking the first time the position has been part of the presidential cabinet.
  • In an open letter, Biden said it's essential for the U.S. to "refresh and reinvigorate our national science and technology strategy to set us on a strong course for the next 75 years."
Keep reading Show less
Surprising Science

Ten “keys to reality” from a Nobel-winning physicist

To understand ourselves and our place in the universe, "we should have humility but also self-respect," Frank Wilczek writes in a new book.

Scroll down to load more…
Quantcast