Why What You Wear Matters So Much

Want to be more meticulous instantly? Slip on a lab coat. Research has found that what you wear can have subtle effects on how you think and behave. Lab coats are often associated with scientists and doctors who are noted for their attentiveness and carefulness, and putting on such a coat will almost magically endow you with these positive qualities. Next time, beware of what you wear and the positive or negative attributes associated with your clothes—don’t try to study for a test in your pyjamas.

We dress ourselves up because we know that our clothes can influence how other people see us. For instance, teachers who wear formal clothes are perceived as more intelligent but less interesting than those who wear less formal clothes; women are more likely to be recruited when they dress masculinely during an interview.

However, what we wear can also influence ourselves. Past research has shown that wearing large hoods makes people more aggressive, while wearing a nurse uniform makes one less hostile. Also, putting on a bikini not only makes women feel ashamed, but also causes them to eat less and perform worse at maths. While there are many examples of the effects of clothes on their wearers, researchers have yet to provide a decent explanation to account for these effects.

Researchers at the Northwestern University investigated this phenomenon and attempted to provide a framework to account for the effects of clothes on their wearers. Participants were asked to put on a white coat that had belonged to a doctor. It was found that participants who wore the coat were more attentive and made fewer errors in an experimental task compared to participants who did not wear it. Also, merely looking at the white coat (not wearing it) did not improve performance. Together, these suggested that physically wearing a lab coat can increase attentiveness and carefulness.

Interestingly, when participants in another experiment were made to believe that the coat which they were wearing had belonged to a painter (it was actually the same white coat that had been described as a doctor’s earlier on), their performance in the task did not improve (i.e., they did not become more attentive and careful). This led the researchers to conclude that physically wearing the coat alone is not sufficient to boost attentiveness—equally important is the meaning (e.g., doctor’s or painter’s qualities) associated with the coat.

What we wear is important for two reasons: (1) our clothes influence other people’s perceptions and impressions of us; (2) our clothes influence our state of mind and as a result affect our thoughts, feelings, and actions. It is therefore crucial to dress according to the situation. At times, we can even rely on clothes to improve our performance. “Clothes make the man. Naked people have little or no influence on society”—it seems that Mark Twain had known it all along.

What do you think? Share your comments below.

Adam, H., & Galinsky, A. D. (2012). Enclothed cognition. Journal of Experimental Social Psychology, 48(4), 918–925. doi:10.1016/j.jesp.2012.02.008

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6 thoughts on “Why What You Wear Matters So Much

  1. I’ve definitely noticed this in my own life. I went to a private high school where we had to wear uniforms – dress slacks, button-down shirt with a sweater or sweater vest. Occasionally, we would have “jeans days,” where we could dress more casually, and the teachers hated it because they said students were much more poorly behaved. Now, I always try to make sure I’m not in pajamas or sweatpants if I’m working or studying. Great post!

    • Thanks for sharing your experience! Glad that you’ve noticed this in your life. I haven’t been wearing my pyjamas (when I’m at home) during the day lately and so far so good!

    • Interesting view there! Looking at antisocial behaviour, I wonder do clothes play a role in causing such behaviour? Or is it that people with such behavioural tendencies are more likely to prefer such clothes? I guess it’s a bit of both? Thanks for sharing.

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