The process of picking an outfit can carry a lot more weight than you may think.
Whether you put an hour of careful thought into it or throw on the first thing you see, the clothes you wear can affect how others perceive you, how you feel about yourself, and even how you behave.
The way clothing influences your thoughts and actions has been nicknamed “enclothed cognition”. It depends on two things: the symbolic meaning that comes with wearing a certain style of clothing, and the physical experience of wearing those clothes.
Consider the symbolism of a white coat. When you imagine someone wearing a white coat, what kind of person do you think of?
Medicine is the profession most closely associated with white coats, and the doctors who wear them are thought to be precise and attentive. One study put the power of wearing a white coat to the test.
What the researchers found was that merely putting on a white coat helped people to perform better on a test of attention. These results were magnified when the coat was described as “a doctor’s coat.”
Now, this may not be enough to get you to go out and buy a white coat, but you can gain similar feelings of empowerment from other kinds of clothing.
A study that simulated high-stakes negotiations randomly assigned people to dress in either suits, sweatpants, or the clothes they came in with. Later, they were asked to make a hypothetical business offer.
The people wearing suits proved significantly more firm and confident in their bids. On average, when making a bid for a hypothetical factory, the suits were able to close the deal for only $830,000 more than their initial offers, compared with $1.6 million for those wearing their own clothes, and a whopping $2.8 million for the sweatpant-clad.
The researchers suggest that wearing formal attire signals your success and confidence to others; appearing successful helps you gain their respect, which further boosts your feelings of confidence.
Dressing for success can even help you to think in new ways.
When asked to complete a series of complex tasks, people who were dressed in formal business wear used types of abstract thinking that someone in a position of power, like a senior executive, would deploy. Dressing formally helped them to take a big-picture view of problems, instead of getting caught up in small details.
Be wary of certain clothes, however. If your outfit makes you self-conscious or uncomfortable, it will be harder to think clearly. For example, one study asked women to wear a swimsuit, and found that this harmed their performance on a math test because they had become so preoccupied with self-conscious thoughts about their bodies.
If you’re going into a high-stakes situation, the clothing advice from science is twofold: Pick an outfit that projects the image and skills required of the situation, but that also makes you feel good and confident about yourself. Because the better you feel, the better the outcome.
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2. Kraus, M.W., & Mendes, W.B. (2014). Sartorial symbols of social class elicit class-consistent behavioral and physiological responses: A dyadic approach. Journal of Experimental Psychology: General, 143, 2330-2340.
3. Slepian, M.L., Ferber, S.N., Gold, J.M., & Rutchick, A.M. (2015). The cognitive consequences of formal clothing. Social Psychological and Personality Science, 6, 661-668.
4. Fredrickson, B.L., Roberts, T.-A., Noll, S.M., Quinn, D.M., & Twenge, J.M. (1998). That swimsuit becomes you: Sex differences in self-objectification, restrained eating, and math performance. Journal of Personality and Social Psychology, 75, 269-284.