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Why a red shirt helped Tiger Woods

Brian Snyder / Reuters

Tiger Woods hits his tee shot on the third hole during final round play in the 2010 Masters golf tournament at the Augusta National Golf Club in Augusta, Ga., on April 11, 2010.

Back in the noughties, Tiger Woods, dressed in a red shirt, hoisted a trophy on the 18th green on almost every Sunday that he started out with at least a share of the lead. Science is helping explain how the red shirt helped him — and why it won't do much for the golfer now.

"It made him feel more confident and powerful and made others shrink in fear of this alpha male among us," Andrew Elliot, a professor of psychology at the University of Rochester, told me Tuesday.


We were talking about a new study in the journal Emotion where Elliot and colleagues find that our reactions immediately become faster and more forceful when we see red.

The conclusion stems from data showing that students more quickly and strongly pinched a metal clasp or squeezed a handgrip after reading red, gray and blue numbers and words that were controlled for lightness and saturation.

In a sense, the research documents our intuitive reaction to red. "It's a danger cue. So your body reacts as if it has just seen a threat. What happens when your body sees a threat is it immediately, automatically, mobilizes energy to flee or fight," Elliot said.

This reaction, the researchers speculate, is an evolved response. In great apes, for example, the alpha males are red in color. Other apes see the alpha males as a threat and thus keep their distance. Humans haven't lost this tendency, he explained.

So, what's this have to do with golf and other sports? The current research, Elliot noted, indicates that "seeing red immediately and very quickly in a short time period does make you stronger. But I don't think it lasts. It is a very quick response."

At the most, the effect might help with something such as weightlifting where a brief burst of strength and speed is needed. Otherwise, the effect of red, which the research shows is real, is likely more in the head when it comes to sports.

In previous research, Elliot and colleagues have shown that seeing red on an opponent makes you think the opponent is more dominant and stronger and so you think the opponent is going to do better than you. They have also shown that wearing red makes you feel more dominant.

"In both ways, viewing it on others and thinking that you are wearing it yourself, red is a dominance and power cue that makes you feel that you are stronger and are going to do better in these physical contests," he said.

On Sundays in the noughties, a dominant Tiger Woods put on his red shirt, walked onto the golf course and a handful of hours later walked off with a trophy. He knew he was powerful, and so did the other golfers. 

But a red shirt isn't magic, Elliot noted, not even for Woods, whose is experiencing the biggest slump of his career.

"If he wears red now, where he is no longer that dominant, it is probably not going to have the same effect because it is not really true, it is not an accurate signal," Elliot said.

"I think there's got to be something behind the signal that is accurate if it is going to work. Tiger is out of luck right now."

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John Roach is a contributing writer for msnbc.com. Connect with the Cosmic Log community by hitting the "like" button on the Cosmic Log Facebook page or following msnbc.com's science editor, Alan Boyle, on Twitter (@b0yle).