Thursday, November 17, 2016

Clothes Make the Man (or Woman)

In season 2 of my favorite show, Buffy the Vampire Slayer, the 6th episode "Halloween" dealt with the pandemonium that ensued when people who rented or purchased their costume from one particular shop turned into their costumes: Willow became a ghost, Xander became soldier, and Buffy became a terrified and helpless 18th century maiden.


This episode had an interesting place in the canon of the show. Xander became a fighter, and Willow had her first taste of being a leader of the Scooby Gang. But more than that, the episode is a great demonstration of a psychological concept. This isn't the first time the show has displayed complex psychological phenomena (see some of my previous posts here). But the particular concept this episode displayed was something I just learned about.

Last night, after I had reached my word count for the day, I decided to take a break, and read a bit more of You Are Now Less Dumb, and came to a fascinating chapter about enclothed cognition. This morning, I found the full-text of the original study:
We introduce the term “enclothed cognition” to describe the systematic influence that clothes have on the wearer’s psychological processes. Providing a potentially unifying framework to integrate past findings and capture the diverse impact that clothes can have on the wearer, we propose that enclothed cognition involves the co-occurrence of two independent factors – the symbolic meaning of the clothes and the physical experience of wearing them.
Basically, wearing clothes of a certain type of person, professional, etc., actually changes the way we think and behave. This effect is more than simply priming. And the researchers who originated this concept, Hajo Adam and Adam Galinsky of Northwestern University, devised an interesting study to demonstrate this difference. They used a white lab coat as their clothing selection. In the first study, participants were randomly assigned to wear or not wear a lab coat while completing a Stroop task. which is a cognitively taxing procedure that involves identifying the font color of a series of color words. In some cases, the font color and the word matched (e.g., red - the correct answer is red) but in other cases, the font color and the word were mismatched (e.g., red - the correct answer is blue). Participants who wore a lab coat made half as many errors as people who did not wear the lab coat.

Next, they conducted two more studies to rule out mere exposure and priming as an explanation of these effects. If priming were a factor, just thinking about doctors/scientists/people who wear lab coats might enhance your performance. So we would expect people who are told just to think about doctors for instance would perform as well as people who wore the lab coat.

In study 2, they ruled out mere exposure. They had three conditions: in two of the groups, people wore the lab coat, but half were told it was a doctor's coat and the other half that it was a painter's smock. In the third condition, a lab coat described as a doctor's coat was on the table near them while they completed the study, but they didn't put it on. All participants then completed a visual search task, which involves identifying differences between two similar pictures; for example:


In this study, people who wore what was described as a doctor's coat spotted significantly more differences than either of the other two conditions. In the third study, they added one more step to the people who merely saw the doctor's coat: they had them write an essay about the meaning behind the coat, how they identify with it, and so on. This time, they found that people who wrote an essay about the doctor's coat identified significantly more differences than people who wore what they thought was a painter's smock (the priming effect), but the people who wore the doctor's coat outperformed them both (the enclothed cognition effect).

What we wear really can make us who we are.

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