Dr. Suzanne B. Phillips

Licensed Psychologist, Psychoanalyst, Diplomate in Group Psychology, Certified Group Therapist, Author, Radio Host and Media Consultant Covering a Wide Range of Psychological Topics

Post: The Impact of What We Wear: Unexpected Findings

The impact of what we wear may be far more complex than we realize.

We have for some time considered the impact of what we wear on others.

Mark Twain tells us “Clothes make the man. Naked people have little or no influence on society.”

Resonating with this perspective, we dress for “success.”  Consciously or unconsciously, we dress to make an impression. In this culture, our goals or version of success may vary. We may dress to reflect a self that is smart, sexy, reserved, in charge, laid back or athletic; but in our choice of clothing, we work to present an image of self on the basis of color and form.

It is no coincidence, for example, that the president and presidential candidates predominately wear red ties. Those consulting on their wardrobes report that red is a color of rank and power and that the color, when researched, provokes the strongest emotional response – passion and optimism or warning and caution.

The Impact on Self

The latest research on what we wear expands this picture. It suggests that what we wear not only impacts others, it impacts us. What we wear not only impacts what we feel… it impacts how we think!!

In a fascinating study reported in the Journal of Experimental Social Psychology, researchers Hajo and Galinsky introduce the term “enclothed cognition.”  According to them, the term “enclothed cognition” refers to the influence clothes have on our psychological processes. In a series of experiments they demonstrate how two factors influence us – the symbolic meaning we attribute to clothes and our actual experience of wearing them.

Their findings are thought provoking:

  • Finding in a pre-test that “Wearing a Lab Coat” was associated with carefulness and attentiveness, they hypothesized that this would have an impact on people’s performance on attention-related tasks.
  • They found that physically wearing a lab coat increased selective attention compared to not wearing a lab coat.
  • They found that wearing a lab coat described as a “doctor’s coat” increased sustained attention compared to wearing a lab coat described as a “painter’s coat.”
  • They found that wearing a lab coat described as a “doctor’s coat” increased sustained attention compared to simply seeing or identifying with a lab coat described as a doctor’s coat.


Could it be that actually wearing something that has symbolic meaning actually impacts cognitive function?

Could it be that wearing clothes associated with high performance in some area impacts self-confidence which bears on attention, focus and enhanced performance?

Do we perform the tasks associated with a uniform at a higher level when we are wearing it because we psychologically and neurophysiologically take on a “mission focused” mentality that reduces distraction and increases selective attention – be it in sports, military, medicine etc.?

Do we perform at a higher level in business when we are dressed for business?

In the arguments for and against “Business Casual” and “Dress Down Friday,” do we enhance morale with casual clothes (as some suggest) while bringing down performance (as others argue)

The Impact of Dealing with A Doctor in a White Coat

  • An interesting rejoinder to this study of “enclothed cognition” is an NIMHA cross-sectional descriptive study using survey methodology conducted with 500 patients and visitors in the waiting room of an internal medicine outpatient clinic.
  • Respondents were asked questions related to their preference for physician dress as well as their trust and willingness to discuss sensitive issues.
  • Respondents overwhelmingly favor physicians in professional attire with a white coat and report this as having a favorable influence on trust and confidence.
  • In a sense this study corroborates the impact of the “symbolic” meaning of clothing (the white lab coat) in an actual medical setting.
  • In addition, it suggests that whether we are wearing certain clothing or responding to someone wearing it – clothing impacts our feelings, our thinking and our response.

Clothes May Not Make the Man – But They Certainly Have an Impact!

Naked Cowboy photo by Elvert Barnes, available under a Creative Commons attribution license.