Brain Babble

Unraveling neuroscience research and FAQs—without the jargon

Clothes Make the Man—Literally

What we wear affects how we perceive ourselves

At my school’s sleep research facility, we are bringing back students for a follow-up study. Most of them don't seem to recall the uncomfortable beds or having electrodes pasted to their scalp from their baseline test, which was done back when they were in elementary school. (For our sake in recruiting participants, that's probably for the best.)

Nowadays they're older, wiser, more self-aware, and, as teenagers, a bit more judgmental. The researchers in charge of performing psychometric testing—new college grads and not much older or taller than the participants themselves—recently made an interesting observation: if they wear a white coat when interacting with the participants (and their parents), they receive more respect.

According to a study by Hajo Adam and Adam Galinsky of Norwestern University, it's possible that these individuals not only look more professional, but subconsciously feel more professional. In other words, the clothes may literally make the man (or woman).

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The study, published February in the Journal of Experimental Social Psychology, observed an interesting phenomenon: wear a white coat you believe belongs to a doctor, and you'll be more focused. Wear a white coat you believe belongs to a painter, and you won't see that improvement.

It's been well-established—in the scientific literature and real life—that what we wear affects how others perceive us. Women who wear more masculine clothes to an interview (such as a dress suit) are more likely to be hired. People dressed conservatively are perceived as self-controlled and reliable, while those wearing more daring clothing are viewed as more attractive and individualistic.

We've recognized these distinctions since childhood—we learn what's appropriate to wear to school, to interviews, to parties. Even those confined to uniform convey their own unique style in an attempt to change how they are perceived by others.

This new study contributes to a growing field known as "embodied cognition"—the idea that we think with not only our brains, but with our physical experiences. Including, it seems, the clothes we're wearing.

Adam and Gallinsky explored this notion in three simple experiments:

In the first experiment, 58 participants were randomly assigned to wear either a white lab coat or street clothes. They were then subject to an incongruity task in which they had to spot items that didn't belong to a set (for instance, the word "red" written in green ink). Those in white coats made half as many errors as those in street clothes.

Next, 74 participants were subject to one of three conditions: wearing what they believed to be a doctor's coat, wearing a painter's coat, or simply seeing a doctor's coat nearby. They then underwent a sustained attention task, studying two similar pictures side-by-side in order to spot the four minor differences between them (not unlike these fun little tasks designed to keep a kid busy for...well, a few minutes anyway). Those who believed they were wearing a doctor's coat (which was, in fact, identical to the painter's coat) spotted more differences than the other two test groups.

Finally, participants wore either doctors' or painters' coats, and were instructed to examine a doctor's lab coat displayed in front of them. They then wrote essays on their opinion of each coat type. Once again, they were tested for sustained attention ("spot the difference"). Again, those wearing the coat saw the greatest improvement in the task. Simply looking at the item, then, does not affect behavior.

According to Galinsky, we must see and feel the clothes on our body—experience it in every way—for it to influence our psyche.

The symbolic meaning of a doctor's lab coat is clear. Physicians are careful, hardworking, and attentive. Do the psychometric testers in my lab become doctors—mentally—when they decide to put on a white coat? Do police officers feel braver on duty in uniform than they normally would in street clothes? Perhaps more importantly, does one dressed as an M&M for Halloween become chocolate?

Another important question remains. Do the cognitive changes last for long periods, or do they eventually wear off? Will one always feel more focused and attentive in a white coat, or will one habituate? According to Galinsky, further research is needed.

In the meantime, if you'll excuse me, I must go hijack a very large person and test my M&Ms costume theory.

Adam, H., & Galinsky, A. (2012). Enclothed cognition Journal of Experimental Social Psychology DOI: 10.1016/j.jesp.2012.02.008

Jordan Gaines Lewis is a science writer and Ph.D. candidate in neuroscience at Penn State College of Medicine.
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