Tuesday, December 19, 2017

Blue skaters

A friend of mine, Renzo Shamey, was recently quoted by the New York Times. Well, I would like to think he's a friend of mine. More accurately, I would like you to think he's a friend of mine. I mean, he was quoted in the New York Times! What does that tell you about how great I am?!?!?

The article was about speedskaters, and how there is now a propensity for speedskaters to wear blue uniforms. It makes then faster.

The guy in blue is sooooo much faster than the other guy!

Havard Myklebus, a Norwegian sports scientist, explains the science behind the color choice. Quoting from the NYT article:

“What I’ve said is, our new blue suit is faster than our old red suit,” he [Havard] said with a tight smile, “and I stand by that.”

Here is another quote from the article along the same lines:

“It’s been proven that blue is faster than other colors,” said Dai Dai Ntab, a sprint specialist for the Netherlands.

So. There you have it. Blue is faster. This is born out in the animal kingdom. Umm... maybe not.

Fastest animals on land, in sea, in sky, and on sliderule

My best friend, Renzo, explains the science this way:

... based on my knowledge of dye chemistry, I cannot possibly imagine how dyeing the same fabric with two dyes that have the same properties to different hues would generate differing aerodynamic responses.

A brief, but well-deserved rant

The two answers illustrate the dichotomy of Science. Note the capital S. This indicates that the word should be said in an intense whisper -- with great reverence. On the one hand, Science is a book about everything that we know. We look to Science to explain how and why something works. This is the Science that my long-time buddy Renzo was referring to.

A cherished book from my childhood

Havard, who I'm sure would be a bosom-buddy of mine if I ever met him, is hearkening to the other half of the dichotomy of Science, the half that is more of a verb then a noun. This view of Science is more along the lines of "I poured the stuff in the beaker-thingie. When I stirred it, it blew up and singed off one of my eyebrows. I dunno why, but when I repeated the experiment, my other eyebrow was gone."

Science is both the floor wax that underlays our method of the pursuit of knowledge, and the dessert topping of sweet knowledge that we get from this holy pursuit.

(I sincerely hope that sentence makes it into the Guinness Book of World Records for the most beautiful allusion to an SNL skit to help explain the nature of Science. My Dad would have been proud.)

I mention this Science thing cuz I got a bee in my bonnet. When a person who is into homeopathy, or anti-vaxxing, or astrology is presented with Science, they often respond with "Oh, yeah? Well, Science doesn't know everything!" Perhaps Science-As-A-Noun doesn't have a cure for cancer, can't explain why some sub-atomic particles are cuter than others, and can't tell me why I didn't exercise yesterday, but Science-As-A-Verb provides us with a method that will ultimately answer the first two of those questions. And Science-As-A-Verb has demonstrated that homeopathy is ineffective, vaccines are good, and astrology is bogus.

Enough of my rant. Let's get back to the speed of blue.

Faster than a speeding differential equation because of the blue suit?


Here is a quote of Renzo's that did not make it into the NYT article:

Psychologically we are influenced by the colors we wear, in fact I am running a study on this very topic at the moment in North Carolina State and our reactions can be influenced by this also.  It has been shown that reaction responses when people are shown red tends to be faster.

Did I mention that Renzo is my closest (and just about only) friend? I look forward to hearing more about his experiment. I have always been fascinated about the intersection between psychology and color science. Full disclaimer; I am a color scientist, but I am not a psychologist. But, I do have psychology. Just ask my therapist. Or my wife.

Color no doubt effects feelings, and it is only logical that this should apply to sports. After all, Dr. Yogi Berra once said: "Baseball is 90 per cent mental. The other half is physical."

Black and aggression

Can you guess which guy is the bad guy?

The earliest study on Psychochromokinesiology that I found was from 1988, The Dark Side of Self- and Social Perception: Black Uniforms and Aggression in Professional Sports. They found that the man in black is more likely to go to the penalty box than athletes wearing other colors.

An analysis of the penalty records of the National Football League and the National Hockey League indicate that teams with black uniforms in both sports ranked near the top of their leagues in penalties throughout the period of study.

But, cause or effect? Did they receive more penalties because wearing black makes an athlete more aggressive? Or is this a case of the don't-drive-a-red-car-cuz-the-cops-are-more-likely-to-pull-you-over syndrome? The researchers set up experiments to test both explanations. It turned out that both were true.

Red and performance

Danger, Gene!

But wearing red might be a good thing, perhaps because of the effect on the other team. Red means danger, right? Here is a quote from one study, Psychology: Red enhances human performance in contests, published in Nature:

...across a range of sports, we find that wearing red is consistently associated with a higher probability of winning.

Here is another really technical sounding paper, Red shirt colour is associated with long-term team success in English football, that gives a shout out to red:

A matched-pairs analysis of red and non-red wearing teams in eight English cities shows significantly better performance of red teams over a 55-year period.

Two out of two technical papers choose red uniforms. But why would it matter?

Color's effect on the perception of others
The kids with the red uniforms always got picked first for dodge ball

Another study tried to figger out what went on in the mind of a goalie: Soccer penalty takers' uniform colour and pre-penalty kick gaze affect the impressions formed of them by opposing goalkeepers. They showed goalies video clips of soccer players taking penalty shots, and then asked the goalies for their opinions. The conclusion was that a penalty kicker was perceived as being more competent if they were wearing red than if they were wearing white.

Here is study that suggests that dominance of athletes in red uniforms might be due to bias in judging: When the Referee Sees Red.... In this study, the researchers created two versions of the 11 video clips from a tae kwon do match. The two versions were identical except that the color of the protective gear was switched. In one video, it was red versus blue, and in the other, it was blue versus red. You can watch one of the clips here. They sat 42 experienced referees down in front of the videos and asked them to count points for each athlete. Their results?

...competitors dressed in red are awarded more points than competitors dressed in blue, even when their performance is identical.


Black is meaner than other colors, and red wins more often than blue. Why is this? There is some evidence that a player changes his or her behavior because of the color they wear. There also is evidence that players react differently because of the colors that other players wear. And, there is also evidence that referees judge players differently based on the color of the uniform.

But I did not find any studies on why a blue uniform would make a skater faster. In the spirit of all research papers written by researchers looking for continued funding, let me say that more research is clearly necessary.

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