Dress Down Day

As a high school senior, my SAT tutor advised me to dress well for my upcoming September test, a strategy that I had never heard of before. Everyone has heard the term “dress for success”, but this term is largely associated with business and not school (i.e. going to a job interview). I did very well on my test that fall, and ever since have been interested to know why this works, or if it truly does. Additionally, I have dressed nice for tests ever since doing well on my fall SAT senior year.

The first article I read, a college life op-ed, features a discussion in which the blogger muses at how she frequently wore sweats when testing in high school, but upon going to college, she became familiar with the concept of dressing well on test day. The author explains that many of her peers believe that dressing well can help them improve their test results, and so she has bought into the concept. While the article does include several quotes from students at Georgetown, Boston College, and Vanderbilt, all of which provide their own takes on dressing to flatter or dressing for comfort on test day, it does mention that the article is not based off science. In fact, the author of the 2014 article notes that she could not find a true scientific study that proved a correlation between dress and test results.


A recent New York Times article on the matter provided far more scientific validity and credibility. It introduced a concept known as ’embodied cognition’ that shows a concrete correlation between the clothes one wears and their performance on tests. Despite not being able to find a mechanism for the difference, the results gave researchers reason to believe that the clothing we wear can have an effect on the way we think and perform academically.

The entire concept of embodied cognition revolves around the fact that clothing affects how we perceive ourselves and how others perceive us. Even more generally, embodied cognition states that we think with our bodies and not just our brains. We think of a person as more congenial if they are holding a warm drink versus a cold drink, for example. Teachers who dress more professionally garner more respect from their students, and women who dress more masculine at interviews are likely to be treated with more respect (Blakeslee). So, scientists designed experiments to help discern whether or not the way we dress truly does affect our psychological processes.

In the first experiment, a group of undergraduate students were randomly assigned to wearing either a doctor’s coat or a painter’s coat. They were given a test in which they had to look at two seemingly identical images side-by-side and point out the four minute differences between them as quickly as possible. Researchers found that those who wore the doctor’s coat found more differences faster. This was a randomized trial because there was no logic to who was given the doctor’s coat and who was given the painter’s coat. Additionally, it was a placebo trial. As the article revealed, both the painter’s coat and doctor’s coat were the same coat. Each trial was done individually, so they were not to know that there was no difference between the painter’s coat and the doctor’s coat were identical. The test subjects acquired different attention spans based on their clothing. This is embodied cognition at work.

In another similar study, test subjects had to complete a test in which they had to notice incongruities between a word on the screen and the words meaning (i.e. the word green shown in red letters). Those in a lab coat found twice as many incongruities than those wearing street clothes.

As the article briefly mentions, this finding parallels the psychological concept known as priming. I’m currently learning about priming in Psychology 100; it is a two-step process in which introducing someone to one concept can make them quicker to react and recall a second. The example my Psychology teacher Dr. S. used was when she said the word pair and asked us to write it down, everyone spelled it as such. Later in class however, she said ‘apple’, ‘banana’, and then pair again, but many of us this time spelled it ‘pear’.

The findings of these studies are very interesting, but they do not confirm without a doubt that dress affects test performance, as one writer tried to assert. The subject field of less than 100 was simply too small. I think a larger randomized control trial in which one group dressed nice and another did not would garner very good results and would reject the null hypothesis, showing that dressing well increases test performance. There are many ways that the test could be performed, but they would need to pick randomly from a large field to limit the effect of confounding variables. One group could dress well while another dressed down (depending on what the decided criteria for “dressed up” meant) and scores could be compared that way. Similarly, a study could be done in which all students take a test in dressed down clothes as a baseline, and then take the same test with similar difficulty again in nicer clothes and see how the tests compared. However, time could be a confounding variable here as students could be more likely to do well.

It is difficult to say, with the studies on hand, whether or not dress affects test performance. However, studies as of now point toward yes, and I think that we are only a few well designed experiments away from confirming this.

3 thoughts on “Dress Down Day

  1. Daniel J Lehecka

    This post was really well done, and I think that the topic has some serious merit. I completely agree with the idea that a large part of it is how we perceive our self. If you aren’t happy with the way you look and feel, you won’t be 100% there mentally. Another possible reason I could think of for this is that it takes extra preparation to dress nicely, so you might interpret that as understanding the importance of the event. Either way, I think everyone has little things that not only make them feel good but also provide extra benefit in their life, and with such a low cost I see no reason not to take advantage of them when you can.

  2. Hannah Curran

    I enjoyed this post because I’ve always wondered myself why dressing well always made me feel better. Maybe there’s a certain correlation between dressing well and mood which may alter how one does on exams. In high school i often dressed well not to impress others, but just to feel good about myself. Your post has persuaded me to start dressing a little better on exam days.
    Heres a study on the link between dressing well and mood: http://www.goodtherapy.org/blog/link-between-clothing-choices-and-emotional-states-0330124

  3. Delaney Ann Flynn

    The term “dress for success” is thrown around all the time. I enjoyed this blog post because you explored this idea further. I like how you related the topic to schooling instead of interviews or situations strictly in the workplace. An idea for an experiment to test this idea would be assign students of similar GPAs to dress up for SATS and others to dress casual and compare their scores. Another method could be assigning one student to take the SATs twice, once dressed up in nice clothing and the second time in sweats. Just an idea!

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