Saturday, March 10, 2012

Why are redheads less common than blondes?

Gilbert Blythe tormenting Anne Shirley (Anne of Green Gables)

Male preference for female hair color seems to be frequency-dependent. The less common a hair color becomes, the more it is preferred. When male subjects are presented with a series of photos showing blondes and brunettes, preference for any one brunette is inversely proportional to the number of brunettes in the series (Thelen, 1983). This frequency dependence may explain why blonde hair is less strongly preferred in England than in France.

England is, however, somewhat fairer generally than most parts of Europe; so that, while it may be said that a very beautiful woman in France or Spain may belong to the blondest section of the community, a very beautiful woman in England, even though of the same degree of blondness as her Continental sister, will not belong to the extremely blonde section of the English community. (Ellis, 2007[1905], p. 160)

Hair color is normally a minor factor when men select mates. It becomes a major factor only when the level of sexual selection is intense, like the situation of a movie producer who has to choose one actress from a number of excellent candidates. Under such conditions, relatively unimportant factors can make a big difference, especially those that can attract and retain attention.

I’ve argued that such conditions once prevailed among ancestral Europeans, specifically European women (Frost, 1994, 2006, 2008). One result was an ever broader range of eye and hair colors. Whenever a new color appeared through mutation, it would be favored by sexual selection until it had become as frequent as the other colors. Although the pressure of sexual selection was on women, these changes in physical appearance spilled over on to men, thereby creating a new phenotype in both sexes.

But we still see some evidence that this selection pressure had targeted women. A twin study has shown that hair is, on average, lighter-colored in women than in men, with red hair being especially more frequent in females. Women also show greater variation in hair color (Shekar et al., 2008).

Do redheads have less fun?

Red is the least common of these new hair colors. It also seems to have a lower tipping point where preference gives way to non-preference—if not dislike. Indeed, in comparison to blondes, redheads become more easily the butt of ridicule and prejudice.

How come? Several reasons appear in the literature. One is that Judas, the betrayer of Christ, was red-haired. Yet this association of ideas may have originated in a much older one that the Church later recycled for its own purposes:

There can be little doubt that this tradition is simply the application of the old belief—much older than Judas Iscariot—that red-haired men are treacherous and dangerous, to the Arch-traitor, sometime during the early Middle Ages, when the popular imagination was busy making up biographies and biographical details for the saints and martyrs of the Church. (Baum, 1922)

This older folk belief had its basis in the idea that redheads are hotheaded and not to be trusted:

We must look further for an explanation of Judas color, and specially in the ill-omen of red hair. This itself took its beginning no doubt, like so much else of popular tradition, in the shrewd observation of natural phenomena. The common German proverb, "Roter Bart, untreue Art," represents a condensed popular judgment. Even to-day a red-haired man is assumed to be hot-headed and quick-tempered, and so not quite to be counted on. (Baum, 1922)

Is this true? Perhaps. Of all the different hair colors, red is the one that seems to have the most pleiotropic effects, e.g., skin type, freckling, beard color, etc. (Flanagan et al., 2000). There are also physiological consequences. Redheads seem to be more sensitive to painkillers, the effect being stronger in women than in men (Mogil et al., 2003). This increased sensitivity was noted over sixty years ago:

Dr. Paul M. Wood, Secretary-Treasurer of the American Board of Anaesthesiology, writes, " ... in twenty-two years of personal experience I have discovered that many difficulties have occurred with persons who have red hair. They do not seem to take anaesthetics in the same way that others do. Most of them are much more sensitive to the anaesthetic."

Dr. David M. Levy states that red headed persons in general go under anaesthetic more readily than do persons of other pigmentations.

Dr. Marco Nunez confirms these observations that red heads are affected more readily than are other persons.
(Keeler, 1947)

We may have here one reason why red hair never became as common as other hair colors. There were too many side effects, and natural selection has probably not had enough time to iron them all out.

But culture has probably been just as important in determining the frequency of red hair. Whereas attitudes to red hair tend to be negative in Latin cultures, they are generally positive in Celtic cultures, as Curry (1916, pp. 18-19) notes in his study of medieval literature: “It is worthy of note, however, that in the Old Irish and Welsh red hair seems to be appreciated, tho to a less extent than the blonde.”

The last point is interesting because the frequency of red hair is much higher in the Celtic regions of Europe (Wikipedia). Has this prevalence been maintained at a higher level by a more “redhead-friendly” environment?


Baum, P.F. (1922). Judas's red hair, The Journal of English and Germanic Philology, 21, 520-529.

Curry, W.C. (1916). The Middle English Ideal of Personal Beauty, as found in the Metrical Romances, Chronicles, and Legends of the XIII, XIV, and XV Centuries. Baltimore: J.H. Furst Co.

Ellis, H. (2007 [1905]). Studies in the Psychology of Sex, Volume 4 (of 6), Teddington, Echo Library.

Flanagan, N., E. Healey, A. Ray, S. Philips, C. Todd, I.J. Jackson, M.A. Birch-Machin, & J.L. Rees. (2000). Pleiotropic effects of the melanocortin 1 receptor (MC1R) gene on human pigmentation, Human Molecular Genetics, 9, 2531-2537.

Frost, P. (2008). Sexual selection and human geographic variation, Special Issue: Proceedings of the 2nd Annual Meeting of the NorthEastern Evolutionary Psychology Society. Journal of Social, Evolutionary, and Cultural Psychology, 2(4),169-191.

Frost, P. (2006). European hair and eye color - A case of frequency-dependent sexual selection? Evolution and Human Behavior, 27, 85-103.

Frost, P. (1994).
Geographic distribution of human skin colour: A selective compromise between natural selection and sexual selection? Human Evolution, 9, 141-153.

Keeler, C.E. (1947). Coat color, physique, and temperament. Materials for the Synthesis of Hereditary Behavior Trends in the Lower Mammals and Man, The Journal of Heredity, 38, 271-277.

Mogil, J.S., S.G. Wilson, E.J. Chesler, A.L. Rankin, K.V. S. Nemmani, W.R. Lariviere, M.K. Groce, M.R. Wallace, L. Kaplan, R. Staud, T.J. Ness, T.L. Glover, M. Stankova, A. Mayorov, V.J. Hruby, J.E. Grisel, & R.B. Fillingim. (2003). The melanocortin-1 receptor gene mediates female-specific mechanisms of analgesia in mice and humans, PNAS, 100, 4867–4872.

Shekar, S.N., D.L. Duffy, T. Frudakis, G.W. Montgomery, M.R. James, R.A. Sturm, & N.G. Martin. (2008). Spectrophotometric methods for quantifying pigmentation in human hair—Influence of MC1R genotype and environment. Photochemistry and Photobiology, 84, 719–726.

Thelen, T.H. (1983). Minority type human mate preference. Social Biology, 30, 162-180.

Wikipedia. Red hair


Sean said...

"The last point is interesting because the frequency of red hair is much higher in the Celtic regions of Europe (Wikipedia). Has this prevalence been maintained at a higher level by a more “redhead-friendly” environment?"

Red hair is not favoured even in Scotland, where I live. I would not be surprised to find redheads have become somewhat scarcer since the Ice Age.

IMO red hair originated in a population that now makes up part of those inhabiting the Western fringe of Europe, that's why it's common there today. Blond{e)s came from further east than redheads I think.

Redheads have pale skin which is not an advantage in securing a mate going what you've said about tanning. Glasgow has nearly as many tanning salons as London, more per head than anywhere else in the UK. Here

Anonymous said...

Red hair is not favoured even in Scotland, where I live.

This might be a more contemporary thing. I've noticed joking about redheads in pop culture on shows like South Park that have lots of influence on the youth become more prominent recently.

Anonymous said...

Muhammad is said to have had red hair. Which is why you'll see some Muslim men dye their beards red.

Although "redhead" in our context which tends to signify a bright, fiery red color, is not necessarily the same as it's used in other cultures.

In other cultures, "red" hair can signify auburn, chestnut, brown, etc. as opposed to dark-brown and black.

Anonymous said...

Apparently redhead sperm is more in demand in Ireland than outside of it, where there is not much demand for it. This could be due to a more positive view of it or preference for it in a Celtic culture like Ireland, or due to there being more redheads there and thus more redheaded parents looking for redheaded kids.

"Sperm bank can’t find takers for red-haired genes"

"Ole Schou, director of Denmark-based international sperm bank Cryos, hit a nerve when he tried to explain why they weren’t taking donations from red-haired males any longer.

“Our stock is about to explode,” he told the Star. “We have nothing against red-haired donors. We have just too many in stock in relation to the demand.”

With more than 70 litres of sperm cooling their heels, “we are drowning in semen,” he said. A further 600 donors are on the waiting list.

The demand is for brown-eyed or Mediterranean donors, and non-Scandinavian types, not an easy find in Denmark, Vikings notwithstanding.

It’s a different story in Ireland, where redheads’ sperm goes “like hotcakes.”"

Reader said...

"Hair color is normally a minor factor when men select mates."

Is there any evidence that genes seek out other genes similar to themselves? Some studies suggest that a strong "genetic alliance" can produce better offspring. A blonde woman mating with a dark-haired man, for example, may produce less successful offspring due to a genetic mismatch, compared to a couple having the same (or similar) hair color.

chris said...

Couldn't it also have something to do with how people perceive the colour red?

The colour is associated with anger, lust, love, passion and war.


Naturally then, couldn't this also have an effect on people's perception of red hair?

chris said...

Also in regards to redheaded sperm being denied from the Cryo sperm bank, most of the media reports were disingenuous.

“Mr Schou said the only reliable demand for sperm from redheaded donors from Ireland, where he said it sold “like hot cakes””

“He said sperm from donors with brown hair and brown eyes was particularly in demand, because of the bank’s large customer base in Spain, Italy and Greece.”


“The only reliable demand for sperm from redheaded donors is in Ireland.”

“Mr Schou said the most in-demand sperm was from donors with brown hair and brown eyes because of the demand from Mediterranean countries. ”


“Customers that do request redheaded donors are mostly based in Denmark, Germany and Ireland, Schou told the Irish Times.”

“Given that many of Cryos’ clients are in Spain, Italy and Greece, the company needs more brown-eyed Scandinavians, Mediterraneans and men of other ethnicities as donors, he said.”



chris said...


And most significantly, from the Irish Times

“Reports of this story have been splashed across world media outlets and put the focus on the redhead ban. But the Danish facility, which is part of an international network of sperm banks, is imposing wider restrictions: they are not taking in any Scandinavians, whether blond, dark-blond red-haired or of any other hair colour, Cryos founder and director Mr Ole Schou told The Irish Times.

“We have too many. We have nearly 500 donors free of quarantine – the world’s largest selection,” he says. “And we have 600 donors on the waiting list. First time in history.”

However it’s the ginger hair that is grabbing the headlines, and the trait is still sought in some areas, according to Schou. “Ireland is among those countries that have the highest demand for red-haired donors – number three on the list behind Denmark and Germany,” he says, noting that the Danish Cryos facility has long supplied Ireland with sperm.

“The problem is that we have too many donors on stock with red hair. If the demand [increases] more than supply, we will take in red-haired again.”

So what kinds of physical traits do prospective parents generally look for in a sperm donor? People seek something similar to themselves, according to Schou, who describes how heterosexual couples look for similarities with the male partner, single parents tend to want sperm donors that look like themselves or “their dream prince” and lesbian couples generally look for a donor that resembles one of the partners.

Graham Coull, lab manager at the Sims clinic in Dublin agrees that for heterosexual couples, sperm donors tend to be matched to the male’s characteristics. He is not surprised by the redhead ban, noting that while Ireland may be one of the top-demanding countries for red-haired donors, in absolute terms the levels of requests here are still fairly low.

“If it’s a heterosexual couple, we match mainly to the male characteristics, and the only time we would be really matching red hair is if the male [partner] has red hair,” says Coull.

“And it’s rare that we would get single women or same-sex partners requesting red hair.” The clinic orders donated sperm through Cryos for use in various fertility procedures, including intra-uterine insemination and in vitro fertilisation.

Patients fill out a sheet detailing preferred characteristics, and Coull finds an appropriate sperm donor. “When it is a heterosexual couple, the most common characteristics in Ireland that we are asked to match are dark hair and blue eyes,” he says.”


So what do we take from this?

1) People in different countries are more likely to want sperm donors who resemble them.

2) The increased demand for dark hair-dark eyes combo is because most of their clientele is from countries where dark hair-dark eyes combo is the norm, that is the Mediterranean.

3) They are not taking ‘in any Scandinavians, whether blond, dark-blond, red-haired or of any other hair colour’.

which leads to 4.

4) The media will grab at any opportunity to kick down the one group that it is politically correct to do so.

FredR said...

This is probably way off base, but (as a redhead) I've noticed that we tend to have somewhat atavistic facial features.

Sean said...

Female sex symbols with naturally reddish hair have tended to bleach it.

Name a single truly red haired (not strawberry blond) Hollywood leading man). There weren't any. Sean Connery was very dark haired and eyed. Does anyone think he could have made it with red hair, and the pale skin that goes with it.

Anonymous said...

Playboy made a 3 volume book set devoted each to blondes, redheads, and brunettes in 2005.
You can also buy them individually and here are their sales rankings:

Redheads: #98,108
Blondes: #1,343,529
Brunettes: #3,351,542

I found this about a year ago and it's always in that order.

Anonymous said...

It is hard to get honest answers about what men like in women vis a vis hair color. I believe this is because while people really do vary in what they like and it is frequency dependent to a degree, rare colors are just that, rare.

This means that the vast majority of men are settling in that area and may not want to admit that or, more probably, they came to love it because they love their wives.

Anonymous said...

During the border wars between Scotland and England, red hair became associated with the scotish invader and on the englishside of the border parents would commit infanticide on children born with red hair. Common mythology in England portray red headed people as being bad temperred and to a degree violent, probably as a leftover of these border wars. John
PS I am a red headed male originating from the border between england and scotland

Peter Frost said...

Sean and others,

The cultural environment changes over time. I remember when blonde jokes first came to Quebec in the late 1980s. At first, no one understood them because blondes were not stigmatized in the local culture.

There has always been anti-redhead prejudice, but I suspect it has grown stronger in recent years, especially in places like Scotland. This is partly because Scotland is assimilating into a broader, more global culture and partly because hostility to pale skin (which goes with red hair) is becoming more overt.

In movies of the past, the 'bad guy' was usually represented as being swarthy (or green in the case of science fiction). There is now a trend to depict bad guys as very white-skinned, even to the point where the 'evil albino' has become a popular motif. Ginger jokes and blonde jokes are likewise part of this increasingly ugly side of modern culture.

Anonymous said...

Because of the other effects associated with red hair, red heads are more likely to be less attractive because of their hair color, unlike blondes or brunettes where hair color is less related to their other features.

Anonymous said...


It is hard to have a discussion about redheads and attractiveness because the experiences of men and women differ so drastically.

Men get the shaft while, say, Botticelli's Venus is a redheaded woman.

And that's before even broaching the subject on how they differ on a physiological and psychological basis.

Redheads were spread across from northern Africa and even into China as evidenced by mummies from the ancient world.
Why did their empire collapse? Hmmm...

Anonymous said...

"Why did their empire collapse? Hmmm..."

Go on, tell. At least I don't know.

Anonymous said...

"Hair color is normally a minor factor when men select mates."

This is mostly true among men from populations where blonde hair is common but among men from places where it doesn't exist blonde hair can easily be the deciding factor - which ties into your point about its potential selection value when it first arose.

S. Thompson said...

Mr Frost,

I have read your other posts about the evolution of skin colour in the Caucasian race and I fight them quite interesting. I would like to ask a question about variation within this race. Why are those in the British isles (esp. in Celtic parts)seem paler than Germanic and Slavic people. The latter two usually remain quite sallow during the Winter whereas those of native Scottish and Irish origin can tan only temporarily at best. I don't think sunlight is that much more pronounced in these parts and women in Ireland and UK and women in these areas find men with red hair unattractive to the same extent that those in other parts of the world do.

Is is possible that male mortality was so high (combined with monogamy) that sexual selection for female variation increased the frequency of the relevant genes to a much higher degree than other parts of Europe. If so, is there evidence throughout history of this very high male mortaility among Celtic populations?

Peter Frost said...

S. Thompson,

The difference in skin tone between Celts and non-Celts is probably due to the presence of redhead alleles, which affect not only hair color but also skin color.

I agree that present-day Celts have fallen into line with the anti-redhead prejudice of other Europeans. But Curry's study suggests that red hair used to be viewed positively in Celtic cultures.

It's anyone's guess as to why Celts were different from other Europeans in this respect. Since Scotland and Ireland lay outside the Roman empire, it may be that anti-redhead prejudice was a Roman culture trait.

Was sexual selection more intense among ancestral Celts during the last ice age? Keep in mind that back then the Celts had not yet differentiated from other Europeans. The early Europeans of that time probably spoke a proto-Uralic language.

In terms of my theoretical model, sexual selection should have been most intense where mean hunting distance was longest. This would probably correspond to the open plains of eastern Europe.

On the other hand, human population densities were higher in Western Europe (because of the moderating influence of the Atlantic). So there would have been a higher probability of new hair and eye colors arising in that region.

Ben10 said...

couple of questions:

1) what is this special sensitivity to anaesthetic?

2) When did these alleles 'popped up'in the european populations?
Wikipedia states:
"Estimates on the original occurrence of the currently active gene for red hair vary from 20,000 to 100,000 years ago"
That seems too old.

3) Are these alleles different from the sometimes reddish hairs of africans?

4) Wikipedia states that the redhairs alleles are recessives. Is there any selective advantages for heterozygotes (such as for sickle cell disease) ?

Sean said...

I wonder if Celts' red hair has been selected for white skin, and was related to your suggestion that "women evolved a lighter complexion and other paedomorphic features as a way to inhibit male aggression and stimulate feelings of care."

If red hair goes with white skin, and white skin discourages male on female violence, as you suggest, perhaps the Celtic areas of Europe are home to populations where the women were more in need of protection from male violence. In other words red hair is selected for in women, partially so that their men would be reluctant to assault them. Alternatively, stimulating provisioning and care giving could be important.

Into modern times men of a certain British Isles ethnic background have had a reputation for beating their wives and abandoning their families. Perhaps in the the west of Europe womens' need to attract a mate was affected by a need for protection from male violence and/or continuing provisioning.

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Jesus D Zeus said...

Yes, Judas was a redhead; and so was Jesus.
Judas did not betray Jesus. See attached article 'Jesus' account of his last Passover' from

To all redheads. please pass it on.

Be proud of your heritage. Soon there will be a lot demanded of you.

You are not Celts. Celts or Keltae are Proto-Europeans of Central Europe, nicknamed so by the Nordic Danaans. The nickname means 'horseshoe smiths' (may be derogatively). They were the first to shoe chariot horses and they are also the best construction engineers. (See references below or attached).

Redheads are the pure descendants of Adam. ('Adam' is a Chaldean word meaning 'Redhead'. The Adamite (Ionian Greek) equivalent is 'Phoenix'). You are the last and superior race on the planet. This is why you will be called upon soon to handle very serious responsibilities.

Read my 'Synoptic History of Mankind' and 'A Reappraisal of Thoth-Hermes' from my Site at for a fuller information and also to see how the Adamite race has been systematically persecuted, exterminated or thinned out, over millennia.

The extermination of the Adamites has been the worse genocide on the planet.

Unfortunately, in racial mixing the fairer race is the receding race. So, in appearance I am not a Redhead but I know my soul ancestry, as you will realize from my articles.

Jesus Demetris Zeus