December 6, 2012

The Power of Clothes

Since the Garden of Eden clothes have had a tremendous power over humans. Clothes protect and warm us, but they also give us identity.

How we perceive ourselves and how others perceive us is very important. What had not previously been fully known is that what you wear actually changes your performance.

The first impressions people have of us are most likely formed by visual presentation- how we look. Soldier, scientist, nurse, doctor, dentist, construction worker, teacher, secretary, painter, policeman, fireman, banker, and lawyer – we see someone dressed in a particular way and we know who they are and what they do.

It is common to think that your qualifications- experience, knowledge, and skills - matter most - but new research reported in the Journal of Experimental Social Psychology indicates that clothes have tremendous power over others and ourselves. The conclusion of the research is that what you wear has significant power over your performance.

Researchers Hajo Adam and Adam Galinsky of Northwestern University argue that “the experience of wearing clothes triggers associated abstract concepts and their symbolic meanings”- in other words, “wearing clothes causes people to “embody” the clothing and its symbolic meaning.”

I know that this is true every time I see a little kid wearing a superhero costume. My daughter at four truly thought she could fly when she put on her Peter Pan costume. The reality came home all to clearly when I had to grab her before she dove off the balcony. What is true for little kids turns out to be true for adults too.

According to Adam and Galinsky, “the psychological process depends on both the symbolic meaning of the clothes and whether people are actually wearing the clothes.” They found that clothing has a deep psychological impact on your performance.

In their study they tested the performance of students assigned randomly to wearing a doctor’s lab coat or wearing an artistic painter’s coat and a third group with a doctor’s coat just in view. The coats were actually identical coats but the subjects of the study were told it was either a doctor’s coat or a painter’s coat.

What they found was that wearing a “doctor’s” coat had a huge impact in the performance of the person wearing it – creating a “connection between the coat and the self” – “the symbolic meaning of the clothes and the physical experience of wearing them.” The results: students who were told they were wearing a doctor’s coat performed better.

Perception is how people judge whether you have the “right stuff”. It is also now understood that it is important how you perceive yourself. Your performance depends on it.  In the journey to your career, there is a turning point. It is the point at which you start looking and feeling like a professional.