Emily vanSonnenberg, MAPP '10, designed and teaches the UCLAx course, Happiness: Theory, Research, and Application in Positive Psychology. She operates a private practice helping people cultivate meaningful and fulfilling lives, and consults for organizations on how to create desired outcomes and increase well-being. Through her articles and speaking engagements, Emily translates psychological research into practical guidance and goal-directed strategies for the general public. Full Bio. Emily's articles are here.
What are you wearing right now? How does it make you feel? Does what you wear affect your behavior?
Researchers at Northwestern University have found that the clothing we wear affects our psychological states, as well as our performance levels. Given their findings, individuals can intentionally choose to wear clothing that will induce more desirable psychological states and enhance task-related performance.The Story of Clothing
Humans invented clothing at least 100,000 years ago. How do we know? That’s about the time, according to molecular biologists, when body lice that lived in clothing seams diverged genetically from head lice that lived on hairs.
While clothing continues to serve the purpose of protecting human beings from adverse environmental circumstances (think parkas for cold weather, hats for sunburns, chain link bodysuits when swimming with sharks), the functions of clothing are vast and varied. Clothing styles (and sometimes, requirements) vary across geographical regions, between religions, genders, age groups, and professions. In our western culture, one large purpose of clothing is aesthetic style. What we wear can be an implicit non-verbal way to express our unique personalities.
Enclothed CognitionCognitive psychologists Hajo Adam and Adam Galinksy from Northwestern University have been examining the psychological and performance-related effects that wearing specific articles of clothing have on the person wearing them. They coined the term, enclothed cognition, for this phenomenon. Enclothed cognition captures the systematic influence that clothes have on the wearer’s psychological processes. It is part of a larger field of research that examines how humans think with both their brains and their bodies, an area of study known as embodied cognition.
Embodied cognition experts have discovered that our thought processes are based on physical experiences that set off associated abstract concepts, including those generated by the clothing we wear. Clothing can enhance our psychological states, and it can improve our performance on tasks. Let’s get a closer look at how and why the functions of clothing extend beyond covering and protecting our bodies, as well as ways people might use the findings to benefit their experiences in daily life.
The Tale of 3 Studies
Adam and Galinsky conducted three studies, controlling for possible characteristics across participants that could inhibit the findings. In their first study, they had two groups of participants. One group was instructed to put on a white lab coat, while members of the other group wore street clothes. Then the participants were given a test for selective attention that measured their abilities to notice incongruities. The participants who wore the white lab coats made almost half as many errors as those participants who wore street clothes.In their second study, Adam and Galinsky gathered three groups of participants to test for heightened attention. One group was told to wear a doctor’s coat, another group was told to wear an artistic painter’s coat, and the last group was told to look at the doctor’s coat that lay on the table in front of them briefly when they first came in. The doctor and painter coats were identical. Each group was then asked perform 4 visual search tasks. In each, they looked at a pair of similar pictures to spot four minor differences, writing each difference down as quickly as possible. The participants wearing the doctor’s coat found more differences than those wearing the painter’s coat or primed to look at the doctor’s coat. This indicated heightened attention.
In their last study, Adam and Galinsky wanted to discover if simply looking at a physical item, like a coat, would affect behavior. Some participants wore what was described to them as either a doctor’s coat or a painter’s coat (again, the same exact coat). Others were instructed to look at a doctor’s lab coat that lay in front of them during the entire session. Each group’s participants were asked to write essays about their thoughts on the coats. Then using the same visual search task as experiment 2, the group that wore the doctor’s coat showed the highest sustained attention.
So what, exactly, is going on when people have different behaviors when they wear the same article of clothing but are told it belongs to different professions? Or when they wear the clothing instead of just looking at it? These researchers believe that clothing holds symbolic meaning. They claim that the influence of clothes depends both on wearing the clothing and the meaning it invokes in their psychological schemas. People must ascribe a symbolic meaning to the article of clothing and actually wear it, for that clothing to have any measurable effect.
For example, doctors (who wear coats) are generally thought to be highly intelligent, precise, and scientific thinkers. Artistic painters are generally thought to be creative, free-spirited types. Ergo, when a person ascribes a symbolic stereotype to an article of clothing while wearing that article of clothing, then the characteristic, strength, and/or ability symbolized by the clothing itself actually seems to have measurable effects on psychological states and performance.Putting On Your Power
So, how can we use the enclothed cognition findings to our benefit?
What kind of symbolic meaning does each article of clothing in your closet hold for you? Do your loafers remind you of a logical, erudite lawyer? Do your 4-inch high heels make you think of a confident woman walking down Wall Street? Does your leather bomber jacket make you think of a rebel?
Perhaps you can choose to make the monotonous daily task of getting dressed more fun and work to your advantage. Try mindfully incorporating the findings discovered from the enclothed cognition experiments to intentionally shape your subjective psychological experience and performance each day, or on special days say, when you have a job interview, a date, or need to take a test.
Here’s one way to go about it: Upon waking up in the morning, take a moment to check-in with yourself and ask, “What do I want to feel like today?” Once you name the intended feeling state or adjective (e.g., friendly, fierce, confident, sexy, composed, loving, and so on), you’re halfway there.Next, ask yourself, “What article(s) of clothing make me feel [fierce, confident, sexy, composed, loving …]? What color(s) make me feel that way?”
Once you’ve identified the article(s) of clothing that symbolizes the desired psychological state, march on over to your closet (no doubt, you’ll have a new pep to your step) and pull out those pieces. If you’re a girl, don’t stop with just your clothes. Go all out: do your makeup, hair, and adorn yourself with the accessories that accurately match–for you–the desired feeling state that you chose.
Men, maybe the tie you choose is the key article that will enhance your day? Or, perhaps it’s your comfy Levi’s?
Try this, and let me know how your intentional, enclothed cognition experiment evolves. Do you notice any behavioral changes? Or, is getting dressed simply, more fun? Either way looks good!
Adam, H. & Galinsky, A. D. (In Press). Enclothed Cognition. Journal of Experimental Social Psychology.
Kittler, R., Kayser, M. & Stoneking, M. (2003). Molecular evolution of Pediculus humanus and the origin of clothing. Current Biology, 13, 1414-1417.
Toups, M. A., Kitchen, A., Light, J. & Reed, D. (2008). Origin of Clothing Lice Indicates Early Clothing Use by Anatomically Modern Humans in Africa. Molecular Biology and Evolution, 28, 29-32.
Streamers and folds for nighttime courtesy of Allison Marchant
Modern Weekly China courtesy of Please visit Kampoll.com
White coat courtesy of Stuart Cale
My Pops courtesy of Joseph Vasquez
Formal wear – Ed Nockles courtesy of Chris Becket