Saturday, January 26, 2013

Agression And Uniform Color

In 1988, researchers Mark Frank and Thomas Gilovich from Cornell assessed the self- and social perception of wearing a black uniform in professional sports. In our culture we would all agree that the good guys always wear white, and the bad guys always wear black. A classic film from 1977 reflects this concept well:

Han solo, always the badass,
incorporates both black and white.

This is not to say film or media is responsible for such concepts, they simply mirror our cultural norms and values. The perception of white = pure, black = evil is heavily integrated into our western culture; all one has to do is inspect just about any Christian piece of artwork ever made. Previous research has shown that Caucasian subjects asked to make semantic differential ratings of colors associated black with evil, death, and sadness (Williams & McMurty, 1970).

Frank and Gilovich set off to see if professional hockey and football teams that wear black uniforms were more aggressive than their counterparts. The operational definition of "black uniform" meaning over half of the colored parts of the uniform being black,  and "aggressive" being how much the teams were penalized in their respective sport. Twenty-five subjects unfamiliar with hockey and football were outfitted with the task of differentiating each teams' uniform. Cues to outside references, such as the teams' hometowns were removed when necessary and\or possible. All of the black uniforms were rated to be much more "bad", "mean", and "aggressive" than other uniforms in the league. The black NFL uniforms were perceived as being "stronger" than their non-black counterparts, however this was not the case for black NHL uniforms!

From Wikipedia and NHLUniforms, here are the ten team uniforms that were used in the study. (As long as the current uniforms are similar to the 1988 uniforms, I did not seek out images of the exact original NFL designs. For example, the Bengals had solid stripes on their sleeves in 1988, instead of today's tiger stripes.)





Bears (While technically dark-blue, The Bear's uniform is very often perceived as black.)






(Frank & Gilovich, 1970)
The researchers found that in record archives from 1970 to 1986, teams with uniforms which matched the definition of "black" were penalized more in penalty minutes (for hockey) and yards (for football) than average. 1970 being selected as the cut-off date as it was the year the NFL merged with the AFL. A significant difference in penalties was also recorded when teams switched over to black uniforms; the years teams in the NHL wore "non-black" uniforms were counted in the non-black sample. As the title suggests, there are two reasons given for this: 1) Social perception, referees making biased decisions against the "bad" teams.
2) Self-perception resulting in increased aggression on part of the players. The teams with black uniforms were also ranked highest on a malevolence scale (as part of the subjects' questionnaire)! The one exception being The New Jersey Devils being ranked fourth in the NHL. It is also interesting to note that the teams ranked the least malevolent by subjects were teams that had cool green or blue uniform colors: The Hartford Whalers, Quebec Nordiques, Toronto Maple Leafs, Washington Capitols (red, white, and blue), St. Louis Blues, The Miami Dolphins, Houston Oilers, Dallas Cowboys, New York Giants, and Detroit Lions were the bottom five teams ranked on malevolence for the NHL and NFL, respectively.

However, the researchers also provide another explanation. Perhaps the management of teams want their teams to play more aggressively as a strategy to win, and therefore management specifically hired aggressive players; the bow on the team being the uniform the team is draped in, sporting a psychologically aggressive color... BLACK.  George Carlin's, "Baseball or Football" sketch comes to mind, and after all, football and hockey are both contact sports. Being aggressive and strong are both ideas you would want to communicate to the other players. This suggestion is certainly worth considering for the Raiders, who in the 1970s and 80s had a notoriously vicious defencive line.

In order to see if referees might have some sort of bias against teams in black uniforms, the researchers went on to form another study where subjects watched staged games of football with white and black uniformed teams. The subjects were asked to rate the defensive team in certain plays. At the end of the study, subjects were more likely to penalize a black uniformed defensive team than a white uniformed defensive team even though it was the exact same gameplay footage with altered color. In a final study presented in the paper, the researchers had male Cornell students compete in a set of games of their choosing, with the opposing teams given white and black uniforms. Those teams given black uniforms were more likely to select more aggressive games, such as chicken fights (as opposed to block stacking), however these results were not statistically significant.

These results lead to some interesting questions. Will you be perceived as being "evil" or "aggressive" by your peers, or even yourself for wearing black clothing? Or perhaps you would be an aggressive person in general, and then as a result select more "intimidating" clothing. Such an issue is age old in psychology, the nature vs. nurture question. I am sure more research has been conducted in this area since this study from 1988. If any of you dear readers know of any follow up studies, please go to the contact page above or leave a comment. 

Frank, Mark G., and Gilovich, Thomas, "The Dark Side of Self- and SocialPerception: Black Uniforms and Aggression in Professional Sports",Journal of Personality and Social Psychology, 1988, 54:1:74-85


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