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Want to manage a new project or move into a leadership role at work? Consider slipping into a suit — or at least more formal clothing. A recent study cited in The Atlantic finds that people who don formal business attire think differently than those dressed in jeans and flip-flops.
“We usually think about how what we wear affects how other people perceive us, so the first interesting thing is that our clothing affects us as well,” writes Abraham Rutchick, an author of the paper and an associate professor of psychology at California State University, Northridge, via email.
Rutchick and his colleagues conducted six experiments where they looked at how clothing impacted how the wearers felt and thought. In four experiments, subjects reported how the clothing they wore made them feel; they then participated in a cognitive task. People who felt they were dressed more formally demonstrated an increased ability to think abstractly.
“Wearing formal clothing makes us feel more powerful, which brings with it a sense of more social distance from other people. Power and abstract processing have been repeated linked to one another in literature,” says Rutchick.
There’s little evidence in the literature about why power and abstract thinking are linked. Rutchick speculates that people who run businesses, for example, might need to think abstractly while employees who need to carry out the day-to-day work need to focus on the details.
“Keep in mind it’s not necessarily ‘better’ to think more abstractly. It means more broadly, creatively … but also in a less detail-oriented way,” he says.
In the other two studies, Rutchick asked students to bring two sets of clothes to a lab — a set to wear to class and a set to wear to a job interview. Interview attire varied greatly with women most often wearing dress pants and blouses and men wearing ties or full suits. The researchers randomly directed students to wear one set of clothing and participate in cognitive tests. Again the more formal the clothing, the more a person thought abstractly.
“The clothing we wear really can influence what we think and even the way we think,” says Josh Davis, author of the forthcoming book "Two Awesome Hours: Science-Based Strategies to Harness Your Best Time and Get Your Most Important Work Done" and director of research and lead professor at NeuroLeadership Institute, who was not involved in the study. “It does lend some support to dress for success.”
While Davis believes that the paper shows that an outfit can change a person’s thought process, he agrees with the authors that dress isn't a magic bullet.
“It can do that. It doesn’t mean that it will do that,” he says.
Davis says there aren’t many studies on how clothing primes thought, but it is an emerging area of research. Interestingly, a 2012 study found that when people wear a white coat associated with doctor’s they pay more attention to detail.
Rutchcick also looked at whether formal wear became less powerful if people wore it regularly. No matter the frequency, wearing a suit fostered a particular way of thinking.
“Putting on a suit (even if habitual or routine) brings with it the adoption of a certain mindset,” he says.