Does what you wear affect how well you work? Quite possibly. We’ve all had the experience of feeling more motivated and focused when we’re dressed up for work – whether that means donning a suit when our usual office dress is khakis and a golf shirt or, for those who work from home, simply getting out of pyjamas. But new research shows that wearing certain items of clothing identified with certain qualities could help improve performance, too.
A recently published study from professors at Northwestern University, in Illinois in the United States, shows that when research subjects wore a scientist’s or medical doctor’s white coat, they performed better on what’s known as the Stroop test, which asks participants to say the colour of a word being shown on a flashcard, rather than the word itself. The group who donned white jackets identified as lab coats performed better on conflicting flash cards, such as when the word ‘‘blue’’ is spelled in red letters. Those wearing the lab coats, which people typically associate with care and attentiveness, made about half as many errors as their peers.
The researchers, Adam Galinsky and Hajo Adam, call their paper ‘‘Enclothed cognition’’, a play on the term ‘‘embodied cognition’’, the idea that bodily sensations can affect how we think and how we feel. For example, a 2010 study found that body positions we think of as powerful (such as standing and leaning over a table or pumping out your chest) make people act more confident and even raise testosterone levels in the body.
Interestingly, the study subjects who wore similar white coats but were told they were artists’ coats did not perform above average. As a result, Galinsky says their findings show that it’s not just the experience of wearing the clothes, but the symbolic meaning they hold for people.
The findings led to questions about whether wearing the robes of a priest or a judge could prompt people to act more ethically, or whether putting on a firefighter’s coat could invoke courage.
And what about suits and ties? ‘‘If you associate those clothes with power and confidence, it’s going to have a huge impact,’’ he says.
‘‘But for some people, wearing suits makes them feel like a phony. So it’s really about what the symbolic meaning of the clothes is to the person.’’
Clothes may not make the man, the saying goes. But as the authors write, ‘‘they do hold a strange power over their wearers’’.
Success dress: Wearing a scientist’s or doctor’s white coat made a difference to the way people performed in a test, researchers found.