The Clothes Make the Woman (and Man)

How what we wear affects our cognition

I can recall what I wore on almost any significant day of my life. Or insignificant, really, if there’s any memory at all associated with it. Every time I put on my favorite jeans, an old memory nips at my mind, some good, some bad. Some memories are bad enough I have to never wear the clothes again, some are good enough I want to only wear certain pieces on special occasions—lucky undies, anyone?

Turns out, this borderline obsession with my clothes has a scientific basis. Scientists are studying a phenomenon they call enclothed cognition: the effects of clothing on cognitive processes. Enclothed cognition is part of the study of embodied cognition, where thought processes based on physical experiences appear to set off related abstract concepts, like viewing a clipboard as a sign of power.

New research published in The Journal of Experimental Social Psychology explores not only how others perceive clothes-wearers, like a power-wielding clipboard, but how the wearer perceives himself or herself. Adam D. Galinsky and Hajo Adam, from the Kellogg School of Management at Northwestern University, conducted three experiments in which the clothes did not vary but their symbolic meaning was manipulated.

In the experiments, students wearing what they were told was a doctor’s coat displayed heightened attention, compared to students wearing what they were told was a painter’s coat. Without any physical differences between the coats, it seems that the wearer’s perception of the coat influences his or her psychological processes—in this case, improving his or her attention to detail.  

While this research is preliminary, it does suggest that I am not alone in feeling the weight of my clothes on my body: a business-like outfit makes me act more professional, an outfit I see as sexy makes me feel sexier. Play with that notion as you get dressed this week, as it appears you can quite literally dress for success!

Image: Some rights reserved by Le Moyne College Alumni

Category: Style


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