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Do Clothes Really Make the Man?


The power of perception is widely known and the way we dress can have a significant impact on the way others perceive us – ‘clothes make the man’, said Shakespeare. Is it possible, however, that what we wear can have an impact on how we perceive ourselves and how well we work? According to a new study published by researchers at the Kellogg School of Management at Northwestern University, USA (Adam & Galinsky, 2012), the clothes you wear can. When research subjects were asked to wear a scientist’s or medical doctor’s white coat, they performed better on a well know cognitive test (“Stroop” test) than the control group. In this study they found that individuals wearing the lab coats, which people typically associate with care and attentiveness, made almost 50% less mistakes than their peers.

In contrast, when study subjects were told that they were wearing artists’ coats, there were no significantly better performances on the tests. It is, therefore, not only the experience of wearing the clothes, but also and more importantly the way we perceive ourselves when wearing them (and the meaning we attach to wearing them). If you perceive people wearing suits, such as successful businessmen and other professionals, as hard-working, confident and competent, chances are that when you put on a suit, this might have a significant impact on your behaviour. If however, you have a different connotation to people wearing suits, it will not change your behaviour in a significant way. The meaning you attach to the wearing of particular clothes therefore appears to be the most important factor.

This research could, in future, have an impact on the strategic thinking of leaders when deciding what they want their employees to wear. We should start considering not only if ‘clothes make the man’, but also how clothes will make the man behave.

Adam, H. & Galinsky, A.D. (2012). Enclothed Cognition. Journal of Experimental Social Psychology, In Press, Accepted Manuscript.

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