- Proverbs like “a monkey dressed in silk is still a monkey” suggest we ought to dress according to our status.
- Yet, the “dress for the job you want not the one you have” life hack seems to work very often.
- Our clothes send powerful signals to peers and strangers, and certainly have the power to influence them.
“The beard does not make the philosopher,” goes the old Italian proverb, and serves as a reminder that it’s not enough to look like we have the beans: we also have to put in the work and study diligently to become masters of a craft.
There’s a similar Spanish proverb that goes like this: “A monkey dressed in silk is still a monkey,” proving that different cultures deemed it important to point out the same fact: When it comes to skills and dress code, causality is better not to be reversed.
These proverbs are a sharp contrast to the “fake it till you make it” mantra my generation grew up with, or the oft-repeated career advice, “dress for the job you want, not for the job that you have.” Proverbs aside, this contemporary life advice from the American workplace does seem to work every so often. But why? And what does it say about our culture today?
A surprising example of when causality can be reversed is how the physical act of smiling makes people feel happier. For over 100 years, psychologists have been studying how smiling affects the brain, and today, combined data from 138 studies and 11,000 participants confirm that smiling alone can make us feel happier, scowling angrier, and frowning sadder.
The way the microwave oven works is just as interesting. The world is made up of particles—just like every kid learned in primary school. When objects get warmer, what really happens inside them is that their particles move faster. We can imagine the microwave as the machine that moves the particles inside things—so when we touch the object, it feels warmer.
When it comes to beards and being a philosopher, it’s only fair then to start growing a beard and see what happens.
One outcome might be that by simply looking more like a philosopher, we’ll start making philosopher friends. People are drawn to others who are like them, so changing our appearances is an easy way to better fit in with the group. Gaining group members’ trust is important because some valuable information is more likely to be shared with insiders.
A person’s social network can drive important decisions: what books to read, which college or seminars to attend, what religious beliefs to hold, what to do in our free time—all the small and large aspects of life are influenced by the communities we belong to. There is a body of empirical evidence illustrating that social networks influence our voting decisions as well. Lazarsfeld, Berelson, and Gaudet found that family and friends had an impact on how individuals voted in the 1940 presidential election in Erie County, Ohio—as early as in 1944.
Faking it to the top
In a world obsessed with appearances, the clothes we wear send powerful signals to peers and strangers. They project the image that we want to display, and they certainly have the power to influence others, even in an environment as formal and neutral as a job interview. In a study published in the Journal of Applied Psychology, Sandra Forsythe found that the masculinity of a female applicant’s dress had a significant effect on interviewers’ selection decisions.
But what we wear isn’t only for the benefit of other people. Wearing a suit or a dress may make the wearer appear more confident—but if they also believe that they look more competent, more confident is exactly what they will become. A self-fulfilling prophecy if we’ve ever seen one.
Body language alone can change how others view us. Timothy Brown and his fellow researchers of the Department of Psychology at Old Dominion University looked at the effect that clothing had on how college students viewed people’s attractiveness. Brown found that posture and how people moved around influenced perceptions of their masculinity or femininity, which in turn had an impact on how attractive they were found.
Fake it till you make it can be a helpful approach in certain situations then, especially where confidence is a key to success:
- Public speaking, for one, is a skill where practice makes perfect. The only real way to be better at it is to get in front of people and speak—pretending to be a little more confident can help bring in valuable opportunities to practice.
- Climbing the career ladder often requires people to shoot for the level above, and apply for roles that are a little beyond their current ability. To be considered for a promotion or a new role, acting as if we already possess the skills and experience required can increase the likelihood of actually getting the job.
Cause and effect can certainly be a two-way street. Is it cheating to wear a good suit? Maybe. But if someone struggles with social anxiety, a little more confidence can help gradually build someone’s actual confidence.
Pretending to be someone else certainly isn’t a long-term solution, and it can erode trust and credibility with others. The goal, instead, is to develop genuine skills and abilities, rather than relying on superficial appearances.
The challenge lies in balancing the pursuit of external validation with a commitment to genuine self-discovery and growth. As the English writer William Hazlitt cautioned, “Those who make their dress a principal part of themselves, will, in general, become of no more value than their dress.”
Forsythe, Sandra & Drake, Mary & Cox, Charles. (1985). Influence of Applicant’s Dress on Interviewer’s Selection Decisions. Journal of Applied Psychology. 70. 374-378. 10.1037/0021-9010.70.2.374.
Nicholas A. Coles, Jeff T. Larsen, Heather C. Lench. A meta-analysis of the facial feedback literature: Effects of facial feedback on emotional experience are small and variable.. Psychological Bulletin, 2019; DOI: 10.1037/bul0000194
WATTS, A. (2014). The influence of social networks and homophily on correct voting. Network Science, 2(1), 90-106. doi:10.1017/nws.2014.1 or https://doi.org/10.1017/nws.2014.1