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Dress to improve your performance

Dress to Impress
Emma Cowan on May 14, 2014 - 4:00 am in In Depth

QuoteIt has been scientifically proven that how you dress has an impact on your performance, giving a depth of meaning to the phrases ‘dress to impress’ or ‘dress for success’. Well, here’s the evidence that it really works and it all comes down to a lab coat. Emma Cowan reports in the first of a two-part series looking at simple ways to improve your business performance by embracing the power of your psychological self.

A host of research has documented the effects that people’s clothes have on the perceptions and reactions of others and this has translated into well know books such as Dress for Success by John T. Molloy, which emphasise the power that clothes can have over others by creating favourable impressions. There are plenty of examples of this in the body of research into the subject, for example, it has been proven that: professional sports teams wearing black uniforms are more aggressive than sports teams wearing non-black uniforms (think All Blacks); when women dress in a masculine fashion during a recruitment interview, they are more likely to be hired and; when they dress sexily in prestigious jobs, they are perceived as less competent.

Clothing doesn’t just affect others’ impression of us, however, a study by Hajoo Adam and Adam D. Galinsky has proved conclusively that how we dress actually affects our performance too. The two researchers coined the term ‘enclothed cognition’ to describe the psychological and performance effect that clothing can induce. In short, the clothes we wear have power not only over others, but also over ourselves.

Men with white coats

The series of experiments, using white lab coats, that Adam and Galinsky undertook yielded interesting results. First off, through a survey they tested and proved the hypothesis that wearing a lab coat signifies a scientific focus and an emphasis on being careful and attentive—attributes that involve the importance of paying attention to the task at hand and not making errors.

Then they gave a group of men and women disposable lab coats to wear and set them a series of tasks, measured against a control group. The results were significant: participants wearing a disposable lab coat made around half as many errors as participants not wearing a disposable lab coat. The results of this experiment demonstrate that wearing a lab coat leads to increased selective attention because of the associations connected to the lab coat.

Adam and Galinsky went further – they wanted to show that enclothed cognition involves the co-occurrence of two independent factors— the effects of clothing on people’s psychological processes depending on both a) the symbolic meaning of the clothes and b) whether people are actually wearing the clothes. The experiments continued. Now one group of participants was given a real lab coat and told it was a doctor’s coat. Another group was given a lab coat and told it was a painter’s coat and the third group wore their ordinary clothes. Again, all participants were given a set of tasks to complete.

The results? Consistent with the hypothesis, participants wearing a doctor’s coat performed significantly better and with fewer mistakes than those wearing a painter’s coat. The time participants took to complete all tasks did not vary across conditions, demonstrating that the effects were not due to mere persistence but resulted from heightened attention during the task. We’ve all heard the saying ‘you are what you eat’, perhaps also ‘you are what you wear’! Adam and Galinsky conclude: “The current [this] research provides initial support for our enclothed cognition perspective that clothes can have profound and systematic psychological and behavioural consequences for their wearers.”

Dress for success

Before you run out and buy a set of lab coats to wear around the office, consider what this study really implies: your intelligence and mental abilities are not set in stone, but are flexible, shaped largely by what you believe is expected of you, which is, in turn, influenced by what you wear. Whether it’s the sharp business suit of the executive or the casual-to-grunge attire of the creative set, wearing role appropriate clothing can actually improve your performance at work, helping you focus more and make fewer errors. So, is it time to go shopping?


H. Adam, A.D. Galinsky, Enclothed Cognition: Journal of Experimental Social Psychology Volume 48, Issue 4, July 2012


business psychology


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