In life we all wear uniforms. The clothing we wear allows others to identify who we are, the things we stand for, and the stance we hold in our lives. Our clothing tells the people around us a lot more than simply the trends we like. I have become increasingly interested in the effect our clothing has on the way not only how others perceive us, but the way we perceive ourselves. I first noticed this effect in my own life when I started dressing up for test days in high school. On days that I had big exams, I would choose to wear my favorite outfit; a maroon skirt with buttons up the front, black tights, and a gray chunky sweater. I noticed that the added confidence boost from the outfit helped me be more sure in my answers, and allowed me to face exams with much less anxiety. That confidence boost was often enough to keep me from changing answers last minute, or making small errors in calculations.
So why do our fashion choices make us feel this way?
A recently published study from professors at the Kellogg School of Management at Northwestern University shows that when research subjects wore a scientist’s or medical doctor’s white coat, they performed better on a test known as the “Stroop test,” which asks participants to say the color of a word being shown on a flash card, rather than the word itself. The group who donned white jackets identified as lab coats performed better on conflicting flash cards, such as when the word “blue” is spelled in red letters. Those wearing the lab coats, which people typically associate with care and attentiveness, made about half as many errors as their peers. Interestingly, the study subjects who wore similar white coats but were told they were artists’ coats did not perform above average. This study is part of a larger area of study known as embodied cognition. The field looks at the effects that outer appearances and actions have our perception of those performing the action. The associations we carry with a particular style or article of clothing may allow us to perform according to the associations we carry. The clothing does not alter cognitive ability, but rather removes self barriers that cause use to inhibit our selves through self doubt. This increase in confidence can decrease uncertainty in answers, and force the subject to rely solely on the information they already know, or have previously studied.
Though I would not replace studying with wearing a white coat to your next midterm, doing both might just give you the confidence boost to succeed. The ability to manipulate the way we perceive ourselves and the people around us holds more power than most consider when looking at their closets every morning to choose the outfit of the day. The fashion choices we make allow us to develop a life we can imagine ourselves living, and by doing so, we outline a vision the life we want. Developing this vision allows us to work toward that life, and eventually we can achieve it.