Recently published research shows what we wear not only affects how we and other people perceive us, it can also make us look at the world differently. Even if your company doesn’t have a dress code requiring employees to put on suits and ties and skirts covering the knees, you might want to put on slightly more formal attire if you want to get ahead in your career.
In 2013, Adam D. Galinsky, a professor at Northwestern’s Kellogg School of Management in the US, popularized the idea of “enclothed cognition”.
According to The New York Times, Galinsky found that when people put on a white lab coat they believe belongs to a doctor, they became more focused and careful and they were a little smarter when performing cognitive tasks.
The phrase “enclothed cognition” is derived from “embodied cognition”, the idea that your thoughts are shaped by your physical activities.
For example, washing your hands is associated with moral or ethical judgments. Another example is if you carry a heavy clipboard, you will feel more important.
Galinsky found that clothes invade both the body and the mind, putting the wearer into a different psychological state.
A more recent study looking specifically at how formal clothes change people’s thought processes confirms this. “Putting on formal clothes makes us feel powerful, and that changes the basic way we see the world,” says Abraham Rutchick, an author of the study and a professor of psychology at California State University in the US.
According to The Atlantic, Rutchick and his colleagues found that wearing clothing that’s more formal than usual makes people think more broadly, rather than narrowly and about small details. In other words, wearing a suit encourages people to use abstract processing more readily than concrete processing.
How can abstract processing help us at work? Imagine you get critical feedback from your colleagues or your boss.
“If you think about it with a concrete processing style, it’s more likely to negatively impact your self-esteem,” says Michael Slepian, another one of the paper’s authors and a professor of management at Columbia Business School in the US. Slepian added that thinking about money with an abstract processing style might lead one to avoid impulsive purchases in favor of smarter, long-term savings behaviors.
But as casual attire becomes the norm in a lot of workplaces, it would seem that people will no longer associate formal attire with power and competence.
Slepian thinks the opposite. “You could even predict the effect could get stronger if formal clothing is only reserved for the most formal of situations,” he was quoted by The Atlantic as saying: “It takes a long time for symbols and our agreed interpretations of those symbols to change, and I wouldn’t expect the suit as a symbol of power to be leaving us anytime soon.”