Dress the Part, and It’s Easier to Walk the Walk

By Carl Richards

 

Carl Richards  



The way we dress affects the way we feel. And the way we feel affects our ability to get stuff done and influence people. Call it superficial if you want, but researchers have a different name for the link between what we wear and how we feel: enclothed cognition.

Let me explain with a story.

On a recent trip to New York, I wore my favorite pair of boots. I wear these boots everywhere, and for the last few years, I neglected them. So when I got to La Guardia Airport a bit early for my flight, I decided it was time to show my trusty boots some love.

I found the shoeshine stand and sat down. The man took one look at my boots and said, “This will be the hardest project of the day.” He got to work, and a short time later it looked like I was wearing new boots. But as nice as my boots appeared, what really surprised me was how much better I felt.

Now, I usually don’t care all that much about what I wear. Just ask my wife. So it sounds silly that a simple shoeshine changed my mood. But it did. The simple act of getting my boots polished made me feel better.

It turns out my experience matches the results of a study published in 2012 by Professor Adam D. Galinsky and Hajo Adam. They conducted three experiments to determine how what we wear impacts the way we feel. They used a well known piece of clothing to test their theory: a doctor’s white lab coat.

In one of the experiments, students who wore a doctor’s white coat to perform different tasks made half as many errors as students who wore regular clothes. That’s right. Students who dressed like doctors were less likely to make an error — even though the tasks assigned in the study had nothing to do with medicine. The other two experiments showed similar results, and we now have what’s known as enclothed cognition.

For anyone who sees people as part of the job or wants to influence the behavior of others, the way we dress does matter. So let’s not kid ourselves. First, people judge us, at least in part, by how we dress. Second, what we wear affects how we feel about ourselves.

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It reminds me of another story, one from my early career as a financial adviser. I asked a good friend of mine, a doctor, how I should dress. He said, “You should dress sharply. Wear a jacket and tie at the very least, and preferably a suit.”

I thought, “That’s so lame. If people need a suit and tie to trust me, I don’t want those kinds of people as clients.” My doctor friend then told me, “Can you imagine if I showed up in my running clothes at the lab? People are expecting someone in a white lab coat, so why give them one more hurdle to jump through before they trust me?”

One other reason for dressing the part: When we’re getting ready to perform a task, a good deal of the work starts with putting ourselves in the right place mentally. For instance, when I dress up to give a talk, it reminds me that I’m there to perform an important function. People have paid money to see me in person, and I need to “show up,” both physically and mentally, to show respect. Dressing nicely matches their expectations and it makes me feel good. Both things help me perform better as a speaker.

It would be easy to dismiss this as shallow or silly. But for the next week, try giving yourself permission to think about what you wear and how it makes you feel, so you’re putting your best foot (or boot) forward at all times. We even have a fancy name for it now. It’s science!

For more information, please read Maybe Clothes do Make the Man (and Woman) on Rice Business Wisdom.