Can right clothes make you smarter?

  • Article by: JENA MCGREGOR , Washington Post
  • Updated: March 22, 2012 - 8:14 PM

A study showed wearing a scientist's or doctor's coat improved test results. Summary.

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 pajamas. 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 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 color 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, the folks at Miller-McCune magazine point to a 2010 study that found that body positions we think of as powerful (such as pumping out your chest) make people act more confident and even raise testosterone levels in the body.

Interestingly, the study subjects who were told their white coats 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. "It's the simultaneous combination of the posture or the clothes and the symbolic meaning of them that matters," he says.

The findings lead 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, as Holden Caulfield would say. So it's really about what the symbolic meaning of the clothes is to the person."

What does this mean for leaders? Will we all be donning white coats? Much of the research on clothing has focused on how we're perceived, rather than how it affects our own behavior, just as most dress codes and workplace dress norms are established to set up a certain perception of the people who work there, rather than to make them feel, think or perform better.

Clothes may not make the man, the saying goes. But as the authors write, "they do hold a strange power over their wearers."

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