Outside In: Dress to Impress Yourself
Want to run the world? Start by tucking in your shirt.
By Merel van Beeren published July 3, 2012 - last reviewed on June 9, 2016
When it comes time for a job interview, most of us know to dress the part. But it's not only the effect on our potential employers we should be thinking about. Recent research suggests that our clothes don't influence just others—they change our own behavior as well. Phone interview? Rethink those slippers, and shine your shoes instead.
We know that the body's physical state can affect the mind (bite down on a pencil, and you can trick your brain into thinking you're smiling). Now Hajo Adam and Adam Galinsky, psychologists at Northwestern, take the science of embodied cognition to the next level—"enclothed cognition." It's not only your body that can shape your behavior, they report in the Journal of Experimental Psychology, but the shirt on your back as well.
To test whether an outfit could trigger particular behaviors, they studied the effects of wearing a lab coat—a garment associated with the attentiveness and care of doctors. Participants completed tasks like identifying the differences between two similar pictures while wearing the lab coat, looking at it, or doing neither. Performance improved significantly when subjects actually wore the garment—unless they were told it was a painter's coat. Adam and Galinsky suspect that both the symbolic meaning of clothes and the physical experience of wearing them are key.
Outside the lab, it's hard to say what comes first—the choice of clothes or the state of mind. "Sometimes a mood catches up with an outfit, but what we wear is generally based on how we feel," says Jennifer Baumgartner, a clinical psychologist and author of You Are What You Wear.
In the sports world, decades of research has demonstrated a link between uniform color and players' behavior. Black jerseys in particular are perceived as more malevolent, and those who wear them tend to play more aggressively. In the 1980s and '90s, Cornell psychologists Mark G. Frank and Thomas Gilovich found that National Hockey League teams wearing black rack up more penalties and study participants assigned black jerseys choose more aggressive games to play against a fictional opponent. But cause and effect are hard to tease apart: They also found that football referees give more penalties to players in black than players in white, even when their actions are identical.
Adam and Galinsky's study with white lab coats is an important development because it shows that wardrobe-inspired behavioral change is not just the result of a preexisting mood or a reaction to the responses of onlookers. Still, the findings won't persuade everyone just yet. "Your behavior is often in tune with what you're wearing," says Santa Clara University psychologist Jerry Burger, "but people are going to quibble about why."