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How a White Coat Sharpens Your Mind

Découvrir les sciences de la vie

  • Off the Bench
  • Inspirer la science

A short excursion into the dressing room of life. Multiple studies provide evidence which supports a connection between certain clothing and deep-seated psychological effects – on the wearer as well as on their companions.

On occasion, your attention and your concentration begin to wane … if this is the case, it may be worth taking a good look at the contents of your closet, or in the mirror. While the term “Clothes make the man” may sound old-fashioned, its wisdom still rings true. A number of recent studies have been able to show that attire indeed influences how well we can concentrate and how others perceive us.
It begins at school – according to a 1991 study conducted by Dorothy U. Behling and Elizabeth A. Williams, well-dressed students strike their teachers as more intelligent. The fact that women who dress in a more masculine manner for an interview are considered more competent and given preference during the hiring process as a result was discovered by psychologist Sandra M. Forsythe in 1990. In the same vein, customers prefer to make purchases if the salesperson is well dressed – this is what Chris Y. Shao, Julie A. Baker and Judy Wagner concluded from their 2004 study.
By the way, the saying “Clothes make the man” has appeared in narratives dating back to the 16th century – more than 400 years ago. It was, however, the novella of the same title by Gottfried Keller, published in 1874, which introduced it to the broader public. It tells the story of Wenzel Strapinski, a poor tailor’s apprentice, who, based on his elegant clothing, is mistaken for a count and who takes advantage of the situation until the deception is eventually discovered.
Our attire, however, not only impresses others, but it also influences us – in a rather surprising way. As early as 1908, Canadian author Lucy Maud Montgomery had Anne of Green Gables exclaim: “It is ever so much easier to be good if your clothes are fashionable!“

Well-dressed – well done!
How much easier it is to be good if dressed formally was to be substantiated by science 100 years later. In 2012, American social psychologists Adam D. Galinsky and his colleague Hajo Adam discovered just how much influence clothing has on our own perception. Clothing can even make people smarter. Through experiments, the psychologists put their hypotheses regarding the control of cognition by apparel to the test. They asked tests subjects to perform a Stroop test – i.e. demonstrate concentration while distracted. One subset of test subjects wore white lab coats – the classic accessory of doctors and scientists – while the control group wore their own informal clothing.
Indeed, the group in the white coats did better. The effect of feeling smarter in a white lab coat thus directly impacts performance.
The scientists sum up: wearing certain clothing activates the respective associations. And while we typically associate care and diligence with the white doctor’s coat, this perception is now transferred to our own behavior: we thus become more careful and diligent. This realization led to the theory of the dressed perception which psychologists have come to appreciate as an important basis in the research of cognitive processes.

Bikinis dull the intellect
Even the opposite effect has been demonstrated by scientists. Bikinis dull one’s intellectual faculties – at least as long as one wears them. Researchers at the University of Michigan came to this conclusion back in the 1990s. In a study, test subjects who wore bikinis while solving mathematical problems did worse than those who wore more clothing. While this series of experiments may appear amusing, the message is clear: clothes not only change our effect on others, but they influence our own performance.
Psychologist Abraham Rutchick and his colleagues at California State University confirmed these findings: in 2015, the team studied the effects of clothing on our thinking. Once again, the result was clear: the subjects who wore formal clothing were capable of more abstract and holistic thinking. The psychologists’ conclusion: especially since clothing is of such symbolic nature, it should be appropriate for the occasion.
To recap: pajamas are less conducive to efficient work than office attire is. This may be of special interest to those who are still working from home. A representative survey sponsored by the digital association Bitkom in mid-March revealed that about half of the German workforce (49 percent) was working either entirely or at least partially from home. In these extraordinary times, many people have the opportunity to observe for themselves how their choice of clothing affects mood, motivation and concentration.