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Enclothed Cognition: Put On Your Power!

written by Emily vanSonnenberg 21 May 2012

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 Cognition

Cognitive 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.

    Doctor or Painter?

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.

    All dressed up...

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

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Lisa Sansom 21 May 2012 - 12:54 pm

I have heard that some companies are moving away from “casual Fridays” because they have noticed a decline in productivity and professionalism when people show up in khakis or jeans. Maybe there is something to that. I know that, the other day, I chose to wear a suit rather than business casual, and it did make a difference in my own perception of myself and that likely radiated to others. The clothes do make the man, as the saying goes. Great article and intriguing research. Now if only I could learn to accessorize… Thanks Em!

Emily 21 May 2012 - 2:34 pm


What you note about the decline in casual Fridays makes sense–given the research; I did not know that–thanks for sharing! Also, great to hear your own story about how dressing intentionally had the effect you hoped for! I imagine you did radiate your enhanced psychological feeling state toward others–in an additive way. PS- You know I’m always here to help teach accessorizing!

Mark R. 21 May 2012 - 5:39 pm

Hello, dear Emily.
Here are examples in which my clothing affected the behavior of others.
While shopping on two different occasions, when I was wearing a suit and tie, I was approached by customers who inquired of me how they could apply for a job at the store. On a different occasion (Halloween), I came to work at the college where I was a full-time, tenured professor dressed a bit differently than usual. I had not shaved nor washed my hair that day, and I wore a mismatched suit and tie made up of several items from the local Salvation Army store. The dean’s administrative assistant avoided eye-contact with me, and I had to struggle to get her to engage me. After she finally recognized me, she noted that she felt a bit frightened by my appearance when I entered the office.
Thank you for your articles!

Emily 21 May 2012 - 8:43 pm

Hi Mark,

Thank you for writing and sharing your interesting experiences with us ~
I am all too familiar with your first example!
The Halloween experience is quite striking. The response you received from the dean’s administrative assistant is curious (especially given that it was a day for dress-up); I wonder how her response affected you, if it did at all? Did not being looked at/acknowledged–and knowing that it was because of how you were dressed–have an effect on you? I imagine that the initial stereotypes that most humans automatically apply to others kicked in for her in that moment. The social psychology findings about how our stereotypes originally arose–serving to protect humans from threat/harm comes to mind in this instance; of course, there are a ton of faulty assumptions, as well as accurate ones at times, in this stereotype. But, this human tendency is so brilliantly exemplified in the case you shared–all based on how you were dressed. It’s incredible how powerful of an impact our presentation choice has on the perceptions of others–and, in turn, how they behave toward us based on these perceptions. Thank you for writing, Mark!

Jeremy McCarthy 29 May 2012 - 9:36 am

Interesting comment about casual Fridays. My company headquarters actually moved from casual Fridays to casual every day as a way to increase autonomy. I have enjoyed the freedom and the cost savings of wearing jeans to work but I have to admit that I do feel more confident when I dress the part. I notice many people still choose to dress in business casual attire even though there is no requirement to do so.

On the flip side, I work in the very relaxed “spa” side of the hospitality industry. So I usually try to be the most casually dressed person in any meeting because it is a reflection of the feeling we try to create in our spas!

Aren Cohen 3 June 2012 - 12:09 am


Thank you for this very interesting article. Did you encounter any research on uniforms? I suspect that uniforms are a prime example of “enclothed cognition.” It is interesting to consider that both athletes and militia wear uniforms. In what ways do uniforms affect the pyschology and performance of their wearers?

In a sense, “enclothed cognition” also speaks to why some people become very aware of brands and logos as a means of self-identification. Of course, a Hollister t-shirt is different from something that engenders a sense of real belonging or community. How do you feel when you wear, say, your UCLA sweatshirt? I know on occassions when I have seen people wearing clothing with my alma mater, I often find myself tempted to strike up a conversation because we are part of a “clan.”

Maybe some “I’m a MAPPster” t-shirts are long overdue???

Thanks again for such a fun article!

Emily 11 June 2012 - 7:28 pm

@Jeremy, How very interesting to hear your perspective on how your company’s shift has had an impact on your subjective rating of your performance. It seems that the shift to daily casual wear could actually be a profound way to create balance–especially in your industry–where calm, relaxation, and letting go are paramount (and, so very difficult for us Westerners to achieve). I’d be curious to hear how/if you’ve noticed any differences in the clients’ reactions & their expressed experiences since the clothing shift has been made at your company, Jeremy.

@Aren, Wow ~ what absolutely fantastic ideas and questions you shared! First off, that “I’m a MAPPster” t-shirt is LOOOOONG overdue (…..)!

Secondly, I did not encounter any research on uniforms; however, there is some fascinating (a bit tangential but, nonetheless…)research about how sports and sports teams are the only measured ways that racial prejudices are erased. I imagine that if the effects of uniforms on teamwork, loyalty, courage, cohesiveness, and friendship formation were measured (maybe they have been, but I don’t know of this), that uniforms would serve to unite people and enhance relationship satisfaction in tremendous ways.
[On an anecdotal note, which I normally tend to shy away from, I had a lot of friends who went to a fancy-shmancy prep school–where attending Ivy League schools was the norm. Out of 120 students in my friends’ graduating class, only 5 went to non-Ivy schools (all of which were still top-notch). So, I wonder how the combination of a uniform and being surrounded by uniforms that symbolize such qualities like intelligence, achievement, etc. serve to factor into actualizing such an outcome (amongst other contributing factors).

Third, to answer your question–when I wear my UCLA t-shirt, I feel different depending on the geographic location in which I am wearing the shirt. For instance, since I live in LA–as do a lot of current Bruins & Bruin Alumni–there is a sense of “fitting in”, so to speak, that I experience. On the other hand, when I wear the shirt while on a run in NYC or while visiting my brother in London (for example), there is a feeling of separateness/being different and individuality that sets into my being. And, wearing a UPenn t-shirt produces an entirely different effect, as does wearing an Atlanta Braves baseball cap. The symbolic nature of each is incredibly powerful on the individual wearing the clothing, and I think on how the individual believes others perceive him/her based on the identification of such uniform-like wear (A.K.A. Stereotypes). What fun questions, Aren ~ thank you!

Christy 6 August 2012 - 5:08 pm

I loved this research. I’ve had a sense for some time that the way we see ourselves is expressed via our clothing and that what we wear can actually impact the way we see ourselves. I help individuals who want to improve their fitness and start running. One of my key areas of focus is to help them improve motivation. I often recommend my clients who have a lot of resistance start by simply putting on work out clothes every day for a full week. I’ve seen many cases were wearing running clothes regularly starts to create a subtle shift in how they see themselves and makes getting out the door for a run much easier. Thanks for sharing.

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