Some psychology research in recent years is making an old aphorism look like an incomplete thought: Clothes make the man… Yes? Go on?
Clothes, it appears, make the man perceive the world differently.
A new study looks specifically at how formal attire changes people's thought processes. “Putting on formal clothes makes us feel powerful, and that changes the basic way we see the world,” says Abraham Rutchick, an author of the study and a professor of psychology at California State University, Northridge. Rutchick and his co-authors found that wearing clothing that’s more formal than usual makes people think more broadly and holistically, rather than narrowly and about fine-grained details. In psychological parlance, wearing a suit encourages people to use abstract processing more readily than concrete processing.
Research on the effects of clothing on cognition remains in its early stages. Another similar study showed that when subjects wore a white coat that they believed belonged to a doctor, they became more attentive, an effect that didn’t hold when they believed the garment was a painter’s. But clothing’s psychological effects have been specified for only a couple of the ways the brain makes sense of stimuli.
That said, at work, when some have to wear suits, there are some specific implications when attire flicks on abstract processing. “If you get a stinging piece of critical feedback at work, if you think about it with a concrete processing style, it's more likely to negatively impact your self-esteem,” says Michael Slepian, another one of the paper’s authors and a professor of management at Columbia Business School. Slepian added that thinking about money with an abstract processing style might lead one to skip impulsive purchases in favor of smarter, long-term savings behaviors.
The researchers arrived at their finding after a series of experiments. The first two had student participants show up without any sartorial instructions, rate the formality of the outfit they happened to be wearing, and then take some tried-and-true cognitive tests to determine their processing styles. In these tests, self-rated formality correlated with the favoring of abstract processing. But since, in the words of the researchers, “the students on this campus tend to dress casually,” explicit instructions to come to the lab with formalwear were required to get students to not show up with sweatpants alone. When subjects who changed into “clothing you would wear in a job interview” took similar cognitive tests, they demonstrated more abstract processing than the group that sported “clothing you would wear to class.” That was a result that allowed the researchers to arrive at a causal link.
Does the effect Rutchick, Slepian, and their colleagues found matter just as much for everyday suit-wearers as more sporadic ones? “No matter how often you wear formal clothing, if you are wearing formal clothing, then you are likely in a context that's not the intimate, comfortable, and more socially close setting with no dress code,” says Slepian. “Thus, whether you wear formal clothing every workday, or only every wedding, my prediction is that we would find a similar influence because the clothing still feels formal in both situations.”
As casual attire becomes the norm in a growing number of workplaces, it would seem that the symbolic power of the suit will erode in coming years. Slepian thinks the opposite. “You could even predict the effect could get stronger if formal clothing is only reserved for the most formal of situations,” he says. “It takes a long time for symbols and our agreed interpretations of those symbols to change, and I wouldn't expect the suit as a symbol of power to be leaving us anytime soon.” Meanwhile, no formal research exists—just anecdotal observations—on how the world appears different when wearing a black turtleneck and jeans.