Red: Bull

by Alice Shirrell Kaswell, Improbable Research staff (Image credit: Flickr user Patricia van Casteren)

Bulls care little about the redness of a matador’s cape. Psychologists have been pretty sure about that since 1923, when George M. Stratton of the University of California published a study called “The Color Red, and the Anger of Cattle.” The full citation is:

“The Color Red, and the Anger of Cattle,” George M. Stratton, Psychological Review, vol. 30, no. 4, July 1923, pp. 321–5.

“It is probable,” Professor Stratton opined, “that this popular belief arises from the fact that cattle, and particularly bulls, have attacked persons displaying red, when the cause of the attack lay in the behavior of the person, in his strangeness, or in other factors apart from the color itself. The human knowledge that red is the color of blood, and that blood is, or seemingly should be, exciting, doubtless has added its own support to this fallacy.”

Professor Stratton, aided by a Miss Morrison and a Mr. Blodgett, conducted an experiment on several small herds of cattle,forty head altogether: a mixture of bulls and bullocks (castrated bulls) and cows and calves, including some who were accustomed to wandering the range and others who lived in barns.

The researchers obtained white, black, red and green strips of cloth, each measuring two by six feet. These they attached “endwise to a line stretched high enough to let the animals go easily under it; from this line the colors hung their 6 feet of length free of the ground, well-separated, and ready to flutter in the breeze.” (Image credit: Flickr user inthesitymad)

The cattle showed indifference to the banners, except sometimes when a breeze made the cloth flutter. Males and females reacted the same way, as did “tame” and “wild” animals. Red did nothing for them.

Farmers seem to have already suspected this. Professor Stratton surveyed some. He reports that “Of 66 such persons who have favored me with their careful replies, I find that 38 believe that red never excites cattle to anger; 15 believe that red usually does not excite them to anger, although exceptionally it may; 8 believe that it usually so excites, though exceptionally it may not; and 3 believe that it always so excites.”

One of those three dissenters described her experience with red-hating cattle: “A lively little Jersey cow whom I had known all her six years of life, chased me through a barbed wire fence when I was wearing a red dress and sweater, and never did so before or after. I changed to a dull gray, and reentered the corral, and she paid no attention to me, and let me feed and water her as usual. Also a Durham bull whom I had raised from a calf, and was a perfect family pet, chased me till I fell from sight through some brush when I was wearing the same outfit of crimson.”

More typical, however, was the farmer who told Professor Stratton: “In referring to the saying, ‘Like waving a red rag before a bull,’ I have found that to wave anything before a bull is dangerous business.” (Image credit: Flickr user Multimaniaco)


This article is republished with permission from the July-August 2008 issue of the Annals of Improbable Research. You can download or purchase back issues of the magazine, or subscribe to receive future issues. Or get a subscription for someone as a gift!

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I always root for the bull. Matadors, killers, are after all uncaring of life, whether it be the toro or otherwise. Their "gay" outfits notwithstanding. Bullfighting is a terrible act of torture long past its time to be retired. Long past...
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Years of Bull Fighting have convinced me that without it's rich history, a TV show like Jackass would never be possible. If a guy wearing that pink outfit was waving a cape around me, I'd want to kick his ass too.
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