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New research suggests that clothing can have an effect on our behavior if that clothing has a symbolic meaning and if we have the physical experience of wearing the clothes.
Researchers at the Kellogg School of Management at Northwestern University call this “enclothed cognition,” which they describe as “the systematic influence that clothes have on the wearer’s psychological processes.”
An abstract of the researchers’ report in Journal of Experimental Social Psychology says:
“. . .we propose that enclothed cognition involves the co-occurrence of two independent factors — the symbolic meaning of the clothes and the physical experience of wearing them. As a first test of our enclothed cognition perspective, the current research explored the effects of wearing a lab coat. A pretest found that a lab coat is generally associated with attentiveness and carefulness. We therefore predicted that wearing a lab coat would increase performance on attention-related tasks.”
In the first experiment, the researchers found that wearing a lab coat identified as a doctor’s coat did, in fact, increase subjects’ selective attention. In the second experiment, they found that people who wore the same coat but were told it was a painter’s coat did not have increased attention. And in the third experiment, they found that just looking at a doctor’s coat did not increase attention.
Adam D. Galinsky, the Kellogg professor who led the study, told The New York Times that it’s commonly known that “clothing affects how other people perceive us as well as how we think about ourselves.” Other experiments, the Times notes in “Mind Games: Sometimes a White Coat Isn’t Just a White Coat,” show that “women who dress in a masculine fashion during a job interview are more likely to be hired, and a teaching assistant who wears formal clothes is perceived as more intelligent than one who dresses more casually. But the deeper question, the researchers said, is whether the clothing you wear affects your psychological processes. Does your outfit alter how you approach and interact with the world?”
Joshua I. Davis, an assistant professor of psychology at Barnard College who studies embodied cognition but didn’t work on this report, told the Times, “I love the idea of trying to figure out why, when we put on certain clothes, we might more readily take on a role and how that might affect our basic abilities.”