Why do American politicians wear red ties?

"Power ties" are actually powerless

Source: Gage Skidmore / Flickr

Donald Trump is hardly a fashion icon, but the Republican presidential candidate is known for a striking style choice: his "ties of power".

Trump's ties clearly captured the Democratic candidate's attention. When Hillary Clinton appeared on Zach Galifianaki's internet chat show "Between Two Ferns" yesterday, she was asked what Trump was likely to wear in the first presidential debate. Clinton replied:

"I assume he'll be wearing that red tie."

Trump, who sometimes wears a blue or gold tie, often wears one of his many red ties at high profile events such as rallies and debates.

And The Donald isn't the only politician who prefers red ties. During the GOP debates, almost all Republican presidential candidates combined their navy suits, white shirts, and Stars and Stripes lapel pins with a red tie.

Why the red tie?

Why do so many politicians wear red power ties?

If we don't ask them (or their stylists) it's impossible to know for sure. Some journalists have speculated that red is a popular color because it appears in the American flag, promoting the patriotism of its wearer. However, if this is true, we should see as many blue ties as red ties.

Perhaps the hint is in the name: "Power". Could it be that politicians suspect that a red tie makes them appear more powerful, dominant and authoritative?

The power of red

In nature, red signals dominance. Sticklebacks with red bellies are more aggressive. Higher-ranking mandrills have bright red faces. The color red is associated with dominance and rank in the animal kingdom because of testosterone. Only animals with lots of male hormones can afford the expensive pigments that are necessary to cover their bodies with red.

Source: Jeff Keacher / Flickr

This red dominance effect was also found in humans. In Taekwondo games, the fighters are randomly assigned red or blue body armor and head protection. Although the process is random, most of the time the fighter in red wins the fight. Red armor seems to give a fighter a competitive advantage.

The same pattern was shown in soccer and Australian rugby. If you compete in red you are more likely to win.

American politics seems to be a full contact sport at times. But is there any reason to believe that red's competitive advantage carries over from sport to politics?

It is certainly correct that red - without context - is judged to be more dominant and aggressive than blue.

When a man's clothes are photoshopped to change color, the photos are rated for dominance and dominance. Aggression Red clothes give significantly higher ratings than blue or gray clothes. Conclusion: red clothing makes a man appear more powerful.

A dead tie

Surely this means Trump is on a winner? New research suggests otherwise.

Robin Kramer, a psychologist from the University of York in the UK, decided to test the effects of red on the perception of dominance and leadership ability in the very specific context of tie colors worn by politicians.

Source: Robin Kramer / CC BY-SA 2.0

Kramer treated the footage so that Obama had either a red or a blue tie. Photo credit: Robin Kramer.

First he showed volunteers a video of the current POTUS, Barack Obama. Using the visual effects software, Kramer created two versions of this video: one in which Obama's tie was dyed red; another in which the tie was blue. The videos were otherwise identical and only one video was randomly shown to the volunteers.

The color of the tie did not affect any assessment of leadership, dominance, or credibility of Obama.

In a follow-up study, Kramer tested whether the tie color influences the perception of an unknown politician. He performed the same color manipulation on videos of former Canadian Prime Minister Stephen Harper and former Australian Prime Minister Tony Abbott, both of whom are less well known among English volunteers than Obama. Again, there was no impact of tie color on the assessment of leadership, dominance, or credibility.

Why are power ties powerless?

These results raise the question of why ties of power are so powerless.

Although wearing red can make one person feel more dominant, the effect of red on the perception of others can be small as long as it leads to changes in performance that can lead to victory in competitive sport. Kramer speculates that since politicians are often viewed against large colored backgrounds, any effect of their tie color can be stifled by sensory overload from their surroundings.

As Kramer points out:

These results suggest that red effects may have limited real-world applications in a political linguistic context and that the “red power tie” is just a myth.

Source: Gage Skidmore / Flickr

Today's male politicians are limited in their fashion choices and can only hope to stand out from the crowd of dreary business suits with a striking selection of tie colors. But maybe ties are too small a canvas to work with.

This suggests that candidates who are more free to choose bold outfits can make better use of the power of red. Will Clinton have an advantage if she shows up in a flaming red pantsuit for next Monday's presidential debate?

More research is needed.

Edit: Trump came up for debate in a blue tie. Clinton was wearing a red suit. Obviously both of them read this blog;)

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