A new study reveals how wearing formal attire changes people's thought processes. “Putting on formal clothes makes us feel powerful, and that changes the basic way we see the world,” says Abraham Rutchick, the author and a professor of psychology at California State University, Northridge.
Rutchick and his team found that wearing clothing that is more formal than usual makes people think more broadly and holistically, rather than narrowly and about fine details. In psychological parlance, wearing a suit encourages people to use abstract processing more frequently than concrete processing.
Research into the effects of clothing on thought processes has not been studied extensively despite research suggesting it has a notable impact.
A similar study showed that when people wore a white coat that they believed belonged to a doctor, they were more attentive, an effect that didn’t hold when they believed the white coat was a painter’s.
There are some specific implications when attire turns on abstract processing. “If you get a stinging piece of critical feedback at work, if you think about it with a concrete processing style, it's more likely to negatively impact your self-esteem,” says Michael Slepian, another one of the paper’s authors. He added that thinking about money with an abstract processing style might mean skipping the impulsive purchases in favor of smarter, long-term savings behaviors.
The researchers arrived at their conclusion after a number of experiments. The first two had students show up without any sartorial instructions, rate the formality of the outfit they were wearing, and then take some tried-and-true cognitive tests to determine their processing styles at that moment.
Does the effect of dress on thinking matter just as much for everyday suit-wearers as more sporadic ones?
“No matter how often you wear formal clothing, if you are wearing formal clothing, then you are likely in a context that's not the intimate, comfortable, and more socially close setting with no dress code,” says Slepian. “Thus, whether you wear formal clothing every workday, or only every wedding, my prediction is that we would find a similar influence because the clothing still feels formal in both situations.”
As casual clothing becomes the norm in a large number of workplaces, it would seem that the symbolic power of the suit will erode in coming years.
But the researchers think the opposite will come true. “You could even predict the effect could get stronger if formal clothing is only reserved for the most formal of situations,” he says. “It takes a long time for symbols and our agreed interpretations of those symbols to change, and I wouldn't expect the suit as a symbol of power to be leaving us anytime soon.”