In the Journal of Experimental Social Psychology, Hajo Adam and Adam Galinsky published an article titled “Enclothed Cognition.” In it, they described experiments that suggest that the clothes we wear have an effect on our psychological processes.
In his blog, Christian Jarrett described the experiments:
…the researchers think enclothed cognition effects will depend on two conditions – first, the symbolic meaning of the clothing and second, the actual wearing of the clothes.
To test this idea, the researchers focused on the power of white coats, synonymous with scientists and their attention to detail. In an initial study, 58 students took part in a test of their powers of selective attention known as the Stroop Test (on critical trials, the ink colour of a word must be named whilst ignoring the colour meaning of the word, e.g. RED written in blue ink). Half the students performed the task in a scientist’s white lab coat (they were told that this was to be consistent with previous participants who’d taken part during building work and worn the coat for protection). The other students just wore their own clothes. The key finding – students in the lab coats made half as many errors on the critical trials of the Stroop Test.
The researchers next wanted to test their proposal that enclothed cognition effects depend on the symbolic meaning of clothes and actually wearing them. For these studies, the participants completed sustained attention tests that involved spotting differences between two similar images. Participants who donned a lab coat performed significantly better than others who merely saw a lab coat on the desk (thus suggesting the enclothed effect is more powerful than mere priming) or others who wore the same kind of coat but were told it belonged to a painter.
Is the enclothed effect about some kind of identification with the clothing? It seems it is more than that. For a final study, participants who wore a lab coat performed better on the sustained attention task than those who wore no coat but wrote an essay about how they identified with a lab coat. In turn, those who wrote the essay performed better than participants who wore a painter’s coat.
“Clothes can have profound and systematic psychological and behavioural consequences for their wearers,” the researchers said. Future research, they suggested, could examine the effects of other types of clothing: might the robe of a priest make us more moral? Would a firefighter’s suit make us more brave? “Although the saying goes that clothes do not make the man,” the researchers concluded, “our results suggest they do hold a strange power over their wearers.”
As well as building on the embodied cognition literature, these new findings also chime with recent “positive contagion” research showing that amateur golfers’ performance improved, and their perception of the hole changed, when they thought they were playing with a putter that belonged to a professional.
My first full-time job was with IBM. This was in the days when IBM had a dress code specifying that men should wear white shirts, ties, conservative suits, and plain dark dress shoes. It was an era when books like “Dress for Success” were in vogue. Although we are far from returning to the IBM-style dress code, it is my observation that many people have pulled back from dressing very casually at work.
Economics may have something to do with this; in tougher times people might be less casual about a lot of things work related, including how they dress. But given the findings described above, perhaps not only do others perceive us differently depending on what we wear to work, but we think and act differently depending on what we wear. Perhaps if what is needed is a more polished and professional mindset a more polished and professional set of garb might subconsciously tweak a person’s mindset in that direction. This is not to imply that “packaging” and appearance should or does trump substance, but on the other hand if what er wear affects not only how others perceive us but also how we perceive ourselves, then we ignore this possibility at our own peril.
For some people, it is difficult if not impossible to afford business attire altogether. An organization called Dress for Success (http://www.dressforsuccess.org/) helps
…promote the economic independence of disadvantaged women by providing professional attire, a network of support and the career development tools to help women thrive in work and in life. Founded in New York City in 1997, Dress for Success is an international not-for-profit organization offering services designed to help our clients find jobs and remain employed. Each Dress for Success client receives one suit when she has a job interview and can return for a second suit or separates when she finds work. Dress for Success serves clients by referral only, and women must have an interview scheduled before receiving clothing. Our clients come to us from a continually expanding and diverse group of non-profit and government agencies including homeless shelters, immigration services, job training programs, educational institutions and domestic violence shelters, among many other organizations. More than 3,000 organizations throughout the world send women to Dress for Success for professional apparel and career development services.
On her initial visit a woman receives a suit appropriate for the industry in which she is interviewing and, if available, accessories. After a woman finds a job she returns to Dress for Success for additional clothing that can be mixed and matched to make several outfits, providing her with the foundation for a professional wardrobe.
While we may be best known for providing suits to women, it is our employment retention programs that are the cornerstone of the organization. Soon after Dress for Success was founded we came to recognize that finding work is only one step in a woman’s journey towards economic independence; remaining employed and building a rewarding career are essential if a woman is to become self-sufficient.