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Wear A White Coat to Become More Careful

January 4, 2014

Clothes may not make the man, but they sure shape his mind. They shape women’s minds, too. According to a recent study, when people tried on a white coat that they were told was a doctor’s coat, they paid closer attention to details and performed tasks more accurately. When people were told to perform the same tasks wearing the same white coat, this time called a painter’s coat, they didn’t perform nearly so well on their tasks.

People have been studying the effects of clothing on the mind for quite some time. An article in the New York Times explored this phenomenon and the recent studies to confirm the supposition that what you wear really does matter:

It has long been known that “clothing affects how other people perceive us as well as how we think about ourselves,” Dr. Galinsky said. Other experiments have shown that women who dress in a masculine fashion during a job interview are more likely to be hired, and a teaching assistant who wears formal clothes is perceived as more intelligent than one who dresses more casually.

But the deeper question, the researchers said, is whether the clothing you wear affects your psychological processes. Does your outfit alter how you approach and interact with the world? So Dr. Galinsky and his colleague Hajo Adam conducted three experiments in which the clothes did not vary but their symbolic meaning was manipulated.

In the first, 58 undergraduates were randomly assigned to wear a white lab coat or street clothes. Then they were given a test for selective attention based on their ability to notice incongruities, as when the word “red” appears in the color green. Those who wore the white lab coats made about half as many errors on incongruent trials as those who wore regular clothes.

In the second experiment, 74 students were randomly assigned to one of three options: wearing a doctor’s coat, wearing a painter’s coat or seeing a doctor’s coat. Then they were given a test for sustained attention. They had to look at two very similar pictures side by side on a screen and spot four minor differences, writing them down as quickly as possible.

Those who wore the doctor’s coat, which was identical to the painter’s coat, found more differences. They had acquired heightened attention. Those who wore the painter’s coat or were primed with merely seeing the doctor’s coat found fewer differences between the images.

If you are wondering if your clothing makes a difference–wonder no more, it does. When in doubt, dress up, because your pay or job performance may depend on it.

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