Is it possible to predict with great certainty who will be crowned Europe’s best football* team this summer? No, but we are flooded with a barrage of statistics which try anyway, e.g. ‘Spain won the last competitions at European and World levels but no one ever went on to win the following European Championship after such a run, therefore Spain won’t win’. Because I neither like unreliable statistics nor understand all that much about football it is time to turn to Psychology and see what team it would put its bet on.
That team is Portugal, or indeed any other team with red jerseys.
In order to substantiate this claim one needs an intuitive theory and some well controlled experiments which support it. The theory is simply: red signals danger. This is seen both in our evolutionary past (e.g., our skin turns red when angry) and in our cultural past (e.g., red traffic lights). But football is different because the colours have no signalling quality other than to indicate team membership. Portuguese players are not constantly angry.
Still, that doesn’t stop the danger signal from influencing behaviour as shown in a recently published set of experiments. Similar to football, poker chips just happen to be red sometimes. Femke Ten Velden and colleagues from Amsterdam looked at online poker strategies (article in press at Journal of Experimental Social Psychology). In a two player game, when holding the card 8 one has about an equal chance of winning and losing. In this experiment the (computer) opponent started the game by placing a bet. How would the participants react? Would they play aggressively and raise or instead fold because they predict a loss as well as little chance to bluff themselves out of it? When the opposing player happens to use red chips participants folded 63% of the time. When the opponent’s chip colour was white or blue, however, they folded only 18% and 24% of the time respectively. Perceived intimidation by the opponent mediated the effect of chip colour on Poker strategy – as if red chips make an opponent look more dangerous.
Does the effect also work the other way around? What happens when the participants themselves have red chips rather than white ones? In a follow-up experiment the participants started the game and indicated through the amount of the initial bet how aggressively they wanted to play. Furthermore, they indicated their feelings of dominance. Turns out that the red=intimidation effect does indeed also work the other way around: players who hold red chips place bigger bets than players holding white chips. This effect was mediated by subjective feelings of dominance.
So, playing against red is intimidating while playing in red increases competitiveness. So far, we have all the ingredients for a betting strategy for Euro 2012 based on Psychological findings: the theory predicts an effect whether you are on the nature side (evolution) or on the nurture side (culture) and that effect is seen in the lab under well controlled conditions. Time to turn to real life sports and see how these effects play out there.
Hill and Barton looked at combat sports during the 2004 Olympic Games and found competitors with red attire to win 55% of the time, those with blue attire 45% of the time. The effect was found in all the combat sports they looked at: boxing, tae kwon do, Greco-Roman wrestling and freestyle wrestling.
Finally, even in football the effect could be shown. During Euro 2004 five teams played some games in red shirts and other games in white or blue shirts. Wearing red increased the number of goals. Three years later the same research team (Attrill et al., 2008) looked at a bigger data set: 55 years of English football. The likelihood of winning the championship was greater than chance for red-wearing teams only. Furthermore, if they played at home – and thus actually wore their red shirts – these teams tended to score more points per game and won more often. On top of that, when looking at major cities with more than one football club, the one in red tends to have a better average league position over the long time period since WWII.
Thus, the red=intimidation effect appears to work in competitive sports as well. Psychology makes a clear recommendation: put your money on a red team. Because evidence from inside and outside the lab as well as nature/nurture reasoning support red teams.
So what? Red teams tend to have a bigger chance of winning but Germany (white/black) is still the team with the most Euro wins ever. Well, this post is not about Portugal’s guarantee to win, it is about their chances. Of course football is not a fashion show where what you wear counts more than what you do. But it is not exactly colour-blind either. Portugal has an advantage. Will they use it?
Attrill, M. J., Gresty, K. A., Hill, R. A., & Barton, R. A. (2008). Red shirt colour is associated with long-term team success in English football Journal of Sports Sciences, 26, 577-582 DOI: 10.1080/02640410701736244
Felden, S.V. Ten, Baas, M., Shalvi, S., Preenen, P.T.Y., & Dreu, C.K.W. De (2012). In competitive interaction displays of red increase actors’ competitive approach and perceivers’ withdrawel Journal of Experimental Social Psychology DOI: 10.1016/j.jesp.2012.04.004
Hill, R. A., & Barton, R. A. (2005). Red enhances human performance in contests Nature, 435 DOI: 10.1038/435293a