Dress for success

By Brittany Gregg, Opinion Editor

Does what you wear affect how you work, both in school and on the job?

We have all had the experience of feeling more motivated and focused when we are dressed up for class or work – whether this means wearing a button down shirt instead of a t-shirt to class or a business casual skirt or pants instead of yoga pants. According to the Washington Post, wearing certain items of clothing identified with certain qualities could help improve performance too.

A recently published study from professors at the Kellogg School of Management at Northwestern University shows that when research subjects wore a scientist’s or medical doctor’s white coat, they performed better on a test known as the “Stroop Test.” The “Stroop Test” asks participants to say the color of a word being shown on a flash card, rather than the word itself. The group who put on lab coats performed better on conflicting flash cards, such as when the word “blue” is spelled in red letters. Those wearing the lab coats, which people typically associate with care and attentiveness, made about half as many errors as their peers.

The researchers, Adam Galinsky and Hajo Adam, call their paper “Enclothed Cognition,” a play on the term “embodied cognition,” the idea that bodily sensations can affect how we think and how we feel. For example, a 2010 study by Miller-McCune found that body positions we think of as powerful – such as standing and leaning over a table or pumping out your chest – makes people act more confident and even raises testosterone levels in the body.

Interestingly, the study subjects who wore similar white coats but were told that they were artists’ coats did not perform above average. As a result, Galinsky says that their findings show that it’s not just the experience of wearing the clothes, but the symbolic meaning they hold for people. “It’s the simultaneous combination of the posture or the clothes and the symbolic meaning of them that matters,” Galinsky said.

Other than artists’ coats, Adam’s and Galinsky’s paper did not study the effect of clothes associated with other professions. But the findings do lead to questions that the authors write, about whether wearing the robes of a priest or a judge could prompt people to act more ethically, or whether putting on a firefighter’s coat could invoke courage. What about suits and ties? “If you associate those clothes with power and confidence, it’s going to have a huge impact” Galinsky said. But for some people, wearing suits makes them feel like a phony. Therefore, it’s really about what the symbolic meaning of the clothes is to the person.

What does this mean for students? I think that it should prompt us to thinking more about our dress code to class and fashion norms. In a business setting, there are policies that are often instituted to make sure people look a certain way to outsiders, but as a student, should we not be conscientious of how we look to our professors? What if we were to bump into a potential employer, what if this individual is taking classes amongst us? What if our professors are scouting students and recruiting them for positions post undergrad? I mean, we do want to hold a solid rapport with them in hopes of using them as a reference for positions and grad school.

Much of the research on clothing has been focused on how we’re perceived, rather than how it affects our own behavior. Just as most dress codes and workplace dress norms are established in order to set up a certain perception of the people who work there, rather than to actually make those people feel, think or perform better.

But before you rush out to the thrift store or Summit Mall so you’ll feel more confident and studious, keep a few things in mind. Some people may not associate the clothes with those emotions. Like Galinksy asks in his paper, “do the effects of physically wearing a particular form of clothing wear off over time as people become habituated to it?” The focused power that comes from dressing business casual class to work could get old when it becomes a standard dress code.

This is a good reminder that students and even leaders, should think through their personal dress codes and college fashion norms, not just in terms of how one’s attire may be perceived by others, but how it makes the students themselves feel, too. “It reminds people that clothes aren’t just a device of perception, but a tool that can really affect how you perceive yourself,” Galinsky said.