Fortunato, Laura and Aaron Clauset

Bright red coloration is a signal of male competitive ability in animal species across a range of taxa, including non-human primates. Does the effect of red on competition extend to humans? A landmark study in evolutionary psychology established such an effect through analysis of data for four combat sports at the 2004 Athens Olympics [1]. Here we show that the results do not replicate in an equivalent, independent dataset for the 2008 Beijing Olympics, and that there is substantial variation in the fraction of wins by red across sports in both years. We uncover a number of shortcomings with the research design, analysis, and interpretation underlying the original results. For example, the variation observed in the data may reflect bias towards wins by one color over the other, linked to specific features of the tournament structure for the sports analysed. Reanalysis of the data to address these shortcomings indicates that there is no evidence for an effect of red on the outcomes of Olympic combat sports. Our results refute past claims based on analysis of this system, challenging the related notion that any effect of red in human competition is an evolved response shaped by sexual selection.