Does Uniform Color Impact Sports Outcomes?

Color advantage?
Color advantage?

At a youth soccer game recently, I noticed that the kids in black uniforms looked more intimidating than those wearing light blue. It turns out this gut reaction may have a basis in science, but surprisingly, not in favor of the team you might think.

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A new study published in the latest Journal of Social Psychology and Personality Science shows that National Hockey League (NHL) teams who wear darker colors, especially black, are viewed as more being more aggressive. Consequently, they end up being penalized at a higher rate than their opponents.

Lead author of the study, Gregory Webster of the University of Florida, Gainesville, analyzed about 50,000 NHL games that were played over the last 25 years. "Teams that wore black jerseys were penalized more, significantly more, than teams wearing other colored jerseys," he told National Public Radio.

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While there may be other reasons that players wearing darker colors are sent to the penalty box more frequently, such as black showing up more clearly against the ice, Webster thinks the discrepancy has more to do with our culture's designation of white as the color of good and black as the color of evil. "There is this very strong cultural association that comes through in how we think about colors in terms of white being associated with good and black with bad," Webster explained. "Many of us are raised from childhood with some of these associations. And over time, we develop a kind of cognitive bias. That's been shown time and time again in social psychology."

An older study by the National Football League came up with similar results. Teams that switched from a white jersey to a dark jersey immediately experienced an increase in penalties. Researchers attributed the uptick to both the attitudes of the referees as well as the players' self-perception and theorized that individual players actually acted more violently when wearing different color jerseys.

While dark colors may influence the referee negatively, white isn't necessarily the color that wins the most overall. National Geographic reports that if you are going for the gold, the color to choose is actually red. When two athletes or teams are equally matched, red has a quantifiable edge. In nature, red signifies dominance and male testosterone. Researchers speculate that, given the popularity of red uniforms (not to mention red power ties), humans unconsciously intuit its advantage.

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