Its Friday. Many of you are probably sitting reading this in less formal clothes than you were wearing yesterday. Dress down fridays were meant to represent casual wind-down and a creative end to the week. Presumably the feeling was that casual = productive.
New scientific research suggests that dress down Fridays might have the opposite effect non-consciously and actually stifle your office creativity.
Given, we as Innovationbubble, advise organisations and brands on the impact of non-conscious factors on employee and consumer behaviour – I thought i’d share some of this research with you.
There has been much psychological output on the impact of what we are wearing on other peoples’ behaviour (in relation to attraction, persuasion, cooperation, inclusiveness etc). Relatively new is psychological research about how clothes directly impact our own abilities.
We know that physical things we carry can directly impact our behaviour. Research has demonstrated that for example experiencing physical warmth (holding a warm mug) increases feelings of interpersonal warmth; nodding one’s head while listening to a persuasive message increases one’s susceptibility to persuasion; carrying a heavy clipboard increases our judgments of self-importance.
More interesting for me is the recent research that has demonstrated the clothes that we wear have a significant impact on our own psychological processes and mental ability.
This new observation has been termed “enclothed cognition” to describe the systematic influence that our clothes have on our psychological processes.
Influential Harvard psychologist William James, has long believed that the clothes you wear ranked just under your physical body, but above your immediate family, in contributing to your understanding of who you are.
Recent findings seem to be supporting this view.
For example one scientific study found that a lab coat is generally associated with attentiveness and carefulness. What was fascinating was that people wearing a lab coat showed significant increased performance on attention-related tasks compared to when they were not wearing it!.
A series of research studies from the U.S. has recently revealed that the formality of what you are wearing influences both how you treat others and how you go about solving problems.
Five studies demonstrated that people wearing more formal clothing are significantly are more likely to think of themselves as competent and rational; in contrast, those who are dressed casually tend to describe their personality accordingly, as friendly and laid-back.
The research went on to find that people who felt more formally dressed than the people around them were more likely to think abstractly (holistically or big picture). So these formally dressed people tended not to focus on the details of a problem but saw it in wider terms and were more likely to consider how things connect from a more high-level perspective.
Thinking more abstractly can be important in the workplace. Abstract thinking focus’s people more on long term gains. Whereas, for instance, concrete processing (which the research found tended to be associated with less formal attire) often leads people into a cognitive bias where they tend to prefer smaller immediate gains relative to larger future gains.
You can appreciate the impact of these two very different ways of thinking in relation to business problem solving, pitching and client relationships.
The potential reason that wearing more formal clothes makes you consider the bigger picture might be in our association with ‘formality’. Being more formally dressed than those slobs around you probably makes you feel a bit surer of yourself, more superior, which, in turn, might make you feel more in control, or more like a leader.
We know from other psychological research that when people feel powerful, they’re more likely to engage in abstract thinking.
Other research from the U.K. has supported the impact of our wardrobes on our self-impression and cognitive behaviour. Studies have shown that people wearing superhero t-shirts rated themselves as being physically stronger than other people in plain t-shirts. What was most fascinating was that people in super-hero t-shirts rated themselves as more stronger than when they themselves were in a plain t-shirt!
It wasn’t just superhero clothing that affected a person’s state of mind, though. In another test, women were ask to do a maths test in a swimsuit or wearing a jumper (sweater). Ye you’ve guessed it – the women performed much better when they were in the jumpers.
We also know from visual psychology research that colour of clothes also influences how we behave and think. Professional sports teams wearing black uniforms are more aggressive than sports teams wearing non-black uniforms. From a self-objectification perspective, research has found that wearing a bikini makes women perform worse at math.
Given all this, perhaps we need to be a little more careful in relation to dress down Fridays – especially if we are trying to resolve an abstract problem. Or if you intend to do some physical work – remember to run into that phone box to change into your super(wo)man t-shirt.
I for one, when working at home will dress a little smarter now.
Author: Dr. Simon Moore
Slepian, M. L., Ferber, S. N., Gold, J. M., & Rutchick, A. M. (2015). The Cognitive Consequences of Formal Clothing. Social Psychological and Personality Science. doi: 10.1177/1948550615579462