As a preteen in the 80s, my demands for Guess jeans and Z Cavaricci shorts were met repeatedly with the same wise—but at the time, annoying—words from my mom: “It’s not what you wear. It’s what’s on the inside that counts.”
Even though she was doing it more in the “we’re not buying you those ridiculously expensive designer clothes” kind of way, the point was not lost on me. We’d all like to think that what we wear doesn’t really impact how people perceive us – that people will be able to tell how smart or talented or kind we are by what we say and how we act. But what about how we perceive ourselves?
We know that there are times when we want to “dress to impress,” whether for a job interview or to meet your boyfriend’s parents. We know that people do pay attention to what we are wearing, whether consciously or not. Studies have shown that women wearing masculine clothing in a job interview are more likely to be hired, and teaching assistants wearing more formal clothes are thought to be smarter. Plus, maybe more importantly, what we wear can impact how we feel about ourselves. I think many of us feel differently when we dress up for a special event or wear a suit to an important meeting.
But could what we wear actually influence our cognitive abilities? Turns out the answer might be yes, and that wearing clothing that you associate with being smart can make you act smarter. The New York Times recently reported on a study led by Northwestern University’s Kellogg School of Management (read study abstract) that showed that wearing a white coat that you believe to be a doctor’s coat—as opposed to a painter’s coat—will increase your ability to pay attention. This is a phenomenon the authors call “enclothed cognition,” which posits that the clothing you wear systematically affects your psychological processes. If you know the symbolic meaning of a piece of clothing (i.e., a doctor’s white coat), you may take on the traits you associate with it (i.e., being careful, rigorous) when you wear it. It’s a play on “embodied cognition,” a growing scientific field focused on the interplay of how our physical experiences (e.g., position, posture) impact our psychological processes (e.g., make us feel more powerful).
The goal of the study was to determine if your clothes could affect how you approach and interact with the world. Research participants who wore a white “doctor’s coat” performed better on a test of sustained attention than those wearing a white “painter’s coat,” a generic white coat, or street clothes.
The idea that what you wear could have a real impact on how you think or perform in the world is fascinating, bringing new meaning to the expression “dressing for success.” What else could make us act smarter? Wearing glasses? Carrying a briefcase?
As a public health professional, the study results make me think: how can we use enclothed cognition to improve people’s health? Is there something we can wear to help us make better/healthier choices? Will putting on our exercise clothes really motivate us to go for that run or get to that exercise class? And how can we facilitate access to these types of clothes for everyone, not just those who can afford them? Beyond exercise, how can this effect be used to help us stick to our health resolutions or follow through on those behaviors that we know are better for us?