A scientific argument for dressing a little nicer at work

For the study, Galinsky assigned 58 under grads to either wear a white, doctor’s lab coat, or simply the street clothes already on their backs. He then used incongruent trials that tested their focus and mental acuity. He found that those who wore the lab coat made about half as many errors as those who wore street clothes.

In his next test, he assigned 74 students three sartorial options. Some would wear a white coat, and were told it was a doctor’s coat. Others wore an identical coat, but were told it was a painter’s coat. And a third group merely looked at a white “doctor’s” coat. The subject then took an attention test where they were asked to point out differences between two images and speedily write them down. Those who wore the “doctor’s” coat performed significantly better than the other two groups.

Though the results were white, doctor’s coat-specific, Galinsky’s work implies that merely wearing an item associated with intelligence can improve your cognitive abilities. “Clothes invade the body and brain, putting the wearer into a different psychological stateClothes can also make others think you’re smarter

Of course, we’re not implying you should show up at the office tomorrow in a white coat with a name tag that says “doctor, not artist.” But it’s worth thinking about what symbolizes smart and effective in your own office.

The professors then gave lectures. Controlling for content, as well as non-verbal behavior like eye contact and smiling, she then asked students to rate professors on several attributes involving competence, character, sociability, composure, and extroversion.

What she found: Perceptions of professional attributes, like competence, composure, and knowledge, “are effected most by dress, with formal dress resulting in the most positive perception.” Perceptions of instructor competence were highest in the formal condition, with business casual a close second, and the lowest ratings for the casual wear.

Of course, the study took place in the 90s, and the definition of formal business attire in most industries has shifted toward the more casual (though thankfully away from flannels). Nevertheless, it’s worth thinking about what is “formal” in your industry and dressing accordingly.

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