Wearing Black Makes You Tougher. GRRRRRR

Swat teams, Oakland Raiders fans, The Wicked Witch of The West, the Russian MIGs in Top Gun, ninjas, and L.L. Cool Jay in Any Given Sunday all have two things in common; they all wear black and they are all pretty intimidating.

The Real World Example

swatSwat teams, Oakland Raiders fans, The Wicked Witch of The West, the Russian MIGs in Top Gun, ninjas, and L.L. Cool Jay in Any Given Sunday all have two things in common; they all wear black and they are all pretty intimidating.

Our association with Black and Evil is pretty well known and interestingly it does not seem to be attached to a single culture but is instead accepted across many cultures.   Why we associate black with evil is as much (if not more) historical than it is psychological. But what are the psychological implications of this association?  It turns out that this has been studied quite a bit, perhaps most interestingly by a team of researchers from Cornell in 1988.

Who Are They?

Mark G. Frank and Thomas Gilovich of Cornell University in 1988.

What They Did?

Frank and Gilovich wondered what wearing the color black might do to ones aggressiveness on sports teams.  So they designed 4 studies that investigated what wearing black uniforms in athletics did to perceived and actual aggressiveness of the participants involved.

What They Did: Study 1–Semantic Interpretations of Team Uniforms

Frank and Gilovich found 25 subjects who knew nothing of the NFL or NHL and nothing about the corresponding sports (football and hockey, respectively).  The subjects were shown various team jerseys and were asked to rate them on 5 aspects (good or bad, timid or aggressive, nice or mean, active or passive, and weak or strong).

A uniform was considered black if 50% of it was black.  In the NFL this included the Steelers, Saints, Raiders, Bengals and Bears (although the Chicago Bears uniform is technically a deep blue, a pre-experimental test showed that most perceived it to be black and in fact much of the football world refers to their uniforms as being black).  In the NHL this included Vanvouver, Philadelphia, Boston, Pittsburgh and Chicago.

What They Found

Despite the fact that jersey’s were shown out of context and without an athlete wearing them, the three scales relating to aggressiveness (good or bad, nice or mean, timid or aggressive) correlated to each other in a way that allowed for the researchers to combine them into a single score that demonstrated an overall aggressiveness level when combined (in other words, subjects who picked “good”, for example, tended to pick the same for the rest of the areas).  What they found was that teams with black uniforms were consistently rated as being more aggressive than their counterparts. Again, the interesting thing about this is that the subjects knew nothing of what these jersey’s represented, only what it looked like.


Obviously a jersey that looks aggressive doesn’t automatically equate to a team that acts more aggressive.  So they sought to find out what the facts actually said of the teams that wore black uniforms.

What They Did: Study2–NFL and NHL Penalty Records

Frank and Gilovich went to the NFL and NHL and requested official penalty records for all teams from 1970 through 1985(NHL) and 1986(NFL).  Because in football, more aggressive penalties (such as roughing the passer, pass interference, or unnecessary roughness) equate to larger yardage losses, the aggressiveness of a given team was based on the amount of yards it was penalized in a given data set. If a team was assessed more penalty yards, it was viewed as playing more aggressively.  In hockey, a player who commits a foul is given a time penalty.  More aggressive penalties equate to more time. Therefore, a hockey team’s aggressiveness was based on its total penalty time in a given data set. If a team had more penalty time, it was viewed as being more aggressive.

What They Found

As they expected, the top 5 most penalized teams in the NFL over the duration of the data set were also the 5 teams that had black uniforms.  The same held true with the NHL teams in terms of penalty minutes with the exception of one team that came in 4th. Coincidentally, it was the New Jersey Devils.

Even more interesting, perhaps, are the findings of two of the NHL teams, Pittsburgh and Vancouver, who actually switched to black uniforms (from non-black uniforms) at one point in the data set. Further analysis revealed that the teams in fact had more penalty minutes post-black uniforms than pre-black uniforms, one of these changes (Pittsburgh) even happened in the same season, and therefore on the same team!

At this point we have found two things. First of all, people seem to think that individuals dressed in black are inherently more aggressive (study 1). Second, we discovered that in two professional sports, teams wearing black uniforms are in fact the most aggressive teams in their respective sports (study 2).  This leaves us with an obvious question though: If people view individuals who wear black as being more aggressive, isn’t it possible that the people calling penalties are simply more prone to calling them on teams in black?

What They Did: Study 3–Bias in Calling Penalties on Individuals in Black or White Uniforms.

To address the above question, Frank and Gilovich decided to directly investigate whether or not people would call penalties more on individuals wearing black than some other color. To be a experimentally sound investigation, the plays needed to be the exact same for those wearing the  black uniform and those not wearing black.  To overcome this dilemma, Frank and Gilovich videotaped two plays.

The two videos showed the exact same play with the exact same penalty likely occurring. The only difference in the two films was that for one, the defense wore black while the offense wore white and in the other, the defense wore white and the offense wore black.  Aside from this, the videos were designed to be as close to each other as possible.

Frank and Gilovich utilized a group of college students and a group of referees who would assess whether or not they felt a penalty had occurred. Every subject viewed the exact same plays. However, the referees and college students were each split into two groups (thus forming four groups).  The first group watched the videos in color, allowing them to plainly see that one team was wearing a black jersey.  The second group watched the video in black and white, and therefore they couldn’t tell if the darker jersey was black or another color like blue, red, or pink.

What They Found

The results showed that black jerseys tended to get penalties called on them more than white jerseys.    This held true for both plays, from both college students and professional referees, despite the fact that they were shot identically.  In other words, if you felt that the offense made a penalty in video 1, you should have felt the offense made a penalty in video two, regardless of the change in jersey color.  This is not what was found. Instead, more referees and college students felt that the black jersey teams made a foul than the white jersey teams.

Furthermore, the college students and professional referees who viewed the black and white films (the groups viewing the “non-black jerseys”) made no significant change in the way they called the play.  If they felt it was the offense in video 1, they felt it was the offense in video 2.

In other words, when the subjects knew that the team was wearing black, they felt they made more penalties, regardless of what side of the ball they were on. But when the color of the dark jersey was unclear, there was no bias in how they called the play.

This leaves us with one final question.  We obvioulsy perceive people wearing black as being more aggressive, even when they may not be (study 3).  So if we perceive others who wear black as more aggressive, what do we think of ourselves when we’re in black?  This question leads us to Frank and Gilovich’s final study.  For their final study, Frank and Gilovich sought to discover if people became more aggressive simply by wearing black uniforms.

What They Did: Study 4–Inducing Aggression by the Wearing of Black Uniforms

Subjects were put into groups of 3.  Each group was informed that they would be competing against each other in a series of 5 activities from a list of 12 possibilities.  Prior to being grouped each subject was asked individually what their 5 favorite activities were.  The list of activities ranged in aggressiveness.  Since some sports are inherently more aggressive than others, the choices they made indicated their level of aggressiveness.  For example, golf is a rather un-aggressive sport, while basketball is somewhat aggressive, and football is inherently aggressive. To determine actual ratings for aggressiveness of the activities, prior to the study a separate group of 30 individuals ranked the aggressiveness of 20 activities and the 12 most consistent results were averaged together to form a scale for the study.

Once the groups were together they were asked to then collaborate with each other on which sports they wanted to participate in.  The teams were either issued white uniforms, or black uniforms.  While making the decision on what activities they wanted to participate in, they did not see their opponents.

The study was looking for two things: 1). Would a team wearing black become more aggressive than they had been as individuals and 2). Would the teams wearing black chose more aggressive sports than the white uniformed teams.

There are therefore 4 groups to look at.

Individuals who would eventually be on a black uniform team
The black uniform teams
Individuals who would eventually be on a white uniform team
The white uniform teams

What they found

Not surprisingly, the results were conclusive.  As individuals, levels of aggression between groups was about the same.   However, once individuals were put on a team with a black uniform, the group then became significantly more aggressive in their choice of activities.   Not only were the group of black uniformed teams significantly more aggressive than the individuals as a whole but they were also more aggressive than their white teamed counterparts.  Furthermore, the white uniform teams aggression hardly changed at all from what they had chosen as individuals!

What does all of this mean?

The 4 experiments above outline some pretty interesting facts on human aggression.  The first alarming finding is that we make quick judgments  about people and what they are wearing.  We automatically assume that individuals wearing black are inherently more aggressive than individuals not wearing black.  But, as it turns out, we may be doing this for good reason because when individuals are wearing black seem to feel, and certainly seem to act, more aggressive.

The only advice I have for you; watch what you say to your buss boy!

Interesting stuff…

More Reading
Black Uniforms and Aggression (full article)


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  • […] were. Frank and Gilovich went to the NFL and NHL and requested official penalty records for all Teams from 1970 through 1985(NHL) and 1986(NFL). Because in football, more aggressive penalties (such as […]

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