How Clothes Affects your Abstract Thinking and Productivity

Clothes affects your abstract thinking and productivity

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

We all know that first impressions matter. What we might not all know is just how fast that window is – just a mere seven seconds. That’s it. With such little time, you don’t want to ruin your chances at a job interview with scruffy clothes. You might be qualified and an ideal candidate, but your clothing choices won’t convey that to your potential employee.

So if clothing is such a key indicator of how others will perceive you (harsh, but true) what effect does the clothes you wear have on your own productivity?

Countless studies found that the clothes you wear can affect your negotiating skills, your thinking and even how you handle criticism. Here are some key ways that dressing smart can affect your productivity.


1. Formal clothes increase abstract thinking

Wearing smart clothes that can improve your abstract thinking skills

In a 2015 report called The Cognitive Consequences of Formal Clothing, researchers asked subjects to change into formal or casual clothing before taking cognitive tests.

The results were clear – those who wore formal attire thought more creatively and holistically versus having a narrow frame of reference. They performed better in tasks that required abstract thinking – which is a key component for any entrepreneur or leader.

Abstract thinking challenges a person to consider possibilities that are outside of the stated narrative or conventional methods used to complete tasks or solve problems.
The researchers suggest the positive cognitive effects are related to feelings of power one experiences in smart attire.


2. Formal clothes improve how you handle criticism

In the same study, researchers found that the more formally a person is dressed, the better they can process criticism in a less personal way.

“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. Abstract processing encourages a more creative perspective, potentially allowing us to see opportunity versus the hindrance,” wrote Michael Slepian, one of the paper’s authors and a professor of management at Columbia Business School.


3. Formal clothes improve negotiation skills

Clothes can influence your negotiating skills

This one might not come as a surprise. A 2014 in the Journal of Experimental Psychology: General compared negation skills of male subjects. Some participants wore their casual clothing, while others were asked to wear a suit.

Participants then had to play a game with a partner that involved negotiating. Those who wore suits had higher testosterone levels and ended up negotiating a better deal, than their counterparts in casual attire.


4. Formal clothes improve your attention

If you want to improve your attention while working on a challenging task – then dress like a doctor.

In a 2012 study called Enclothed Cognition by the Kellogg School of Management at Northwestern University, subjects who wore a white coat they believed was a medical coat, they paid more attention and performed better on tests.

Interestingly, the study subjects who wore similar white coats but were told they were artists’ coats did not perform above average. This showed that the symbolic meaning of clothing – what feelings it evokes in us – is just as important.

“If you associate those clothes with power and confidence, it’s going to have a huge impact,” said researcher Adam Galinsky.

“But for some people, wearing suits makes them feel like a phony, as Holden Caulfield would say. So it’s really about what the symbolic meaning of the clothes is to the person.”

So if you want to be perceived professionally and competent, dress to convey that message. But more importantly, you really will be doing this to benefit yourself. Your clothing choices affect you too.

“(Clothing) hold a strange power over their wearers. ……. It reminds people that clothes aren’t just a device of perception, but a tool that can really affect how you perceive yourself,” says Galinsky.


Will casual attire at work take over?

Despite the research of how formal wear can improve overall focus and performance, work attire is going in the opposite direction.

Silicon Valley CEOs opt for a low key, minimalistic look, and encourage a
casual work culture.

For some people though, wearing the same kind of clothes in and out of the office is troublesome. It becomes hard to separate between their “at work” and “off work” mode.

Creating boundaries is essential

“Changing your outfit after work is a concrete representation that you are not in work mode anymore, says Dr. Karen Pine, professor of psychology at the University of Hertfordshire and fashion psychologist.

This could be even a subtle distinction.  When you get home, you can change out a blouse for a relaxed t-shirt. Or swap out your jeans with some tattered but comfy ones that you can lounge in.

“The days I don’t change my clothes after work, I find myself more agitated and find it harder to put down work,” Dr. Baumgartner says. Digitally we’re always plugged in to work, so those boundaries have become more necessary than ever.

So will the power suit soon be a thing of the past?

Researcher Michael Slepian believes that will never happen.

“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.”


Do you think your clothes impacts your productivity? What do you think about dressing casually at work? I’d love to hear from you, share your comments below. 

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