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Could Wearing a Lab Coat Make You Smarter?
Northwestern University researchers say that our clothes affect our psychological processes. In a study, subjects who wore a lab coat they were told belonged to a doctor were more attentive than people who wore the same coat but who’d been told it belonged to a painter.
By Ian Landau, Senior Editor
THURSDAY, April 5, 2012 — Your choice in clothes says a lot about you. Your goth outfits in high school projected to the world your disdain for authority and your inner teenage pain. Later, power ties or sharp suits and heels projected your sense of business savvy and self-confidence. But in addition to influencing how others perceive you, as well as shaping your self-perception, could your choice in clothes actually change your psychology?
That’s what professor Adam Galinsky of the Kellogg School of Management at Northwestern University wondered after being inspired by one of America’s most fertile ground’s for topics of academic research: The Simpsons. Galinsky’s interest was piqued by an episode in which Springfield’s schoolkids are forced to wear boring, gray school uniforms. The kids are dejected until a rainstorm comes, soaking the uniforms and turning them into vibrant tie-dyed outfits, which makes the kids happy again. Could the clothes we wear effect our actions and thoughts that much?
To examine this question, Galinsky and his Kellogg colleague Hajo Adam conducted three relatively simple experiments. First, 58 students were given a test to measure their selective attention, in which they had to identify the color of a word that’s spelled out using a different color (for example, the word “blue” may appear in red letters). Some students wore street clothes for the test while others were randomly assigned to wear a white lab coat. Those wearing the lab coat made about half as many mistakes.
In a second experiment, subjects viewed two nearly identical pictures that had minor differences and had to identify what wasn’t the same as fast as they could. This time around some subjects wore a white coat they were told was a doctor’s coat; others were given the exact same white coat, but told it was a painter’s coat; and some wore no coat at all, but a white coat they were told was a doctor’s coat was visible in the room as they took the test. On this test, those wearing the supposed doctor’s coat found more differences in the pictures compared to the other two groups.
Lastly, subjects were again broken into three groups: some wearing the “doctor’s coat,” some in the “painter’s coat,” and some who merely had a doctor’s coat draped on a desk in front of them. This time subjects were asked to write an essay about the coat they were wearing or observing, and then they were given the picture test again. For the third time, people in the doctor’s coats outperformed the other groups.
So, what’s going on here? Galinsky and Adam say in their study, which was recently published by the Journal of Experimental Social Psychology, that the results show our psychological processes are shaped by the symbolic meaning we attach to the clothes we wear. They call this process “enclothed cognition,” which they describe as “the systematic influence that clothes have on the wearer’s psychological processes.” Doctors are attentive, focused people, thus when someone in the study put on a doctor’s lab coat he or she unwittingly adopted those qualities as well.
Of course, if you think doctors are arrogant and insensitive, wearing a lab coat probably won’t increase your ability to focus, and instead might make you act like a jerk. But that’s for another study.