Is a White Coat Just a White Coat? Let’s see

by Marina Greggio
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According to this “The New York Times” article if you wear a white coat and you believe it belongs to a doctor, your ability to pay attention increases sharply. On the other hand, if you wear the same white coat believing it belongs to a painter, you will show no such improvement. This phenomenon is called enclothed cognition: the effects of clothing on cognitive processes

“I love the idea of trying to figure out why, when we put on certain clothes, we might more readily take on a role and how that might affect our basic abilities,” said Joshua I. Davis, an assistant professor of psychology at Barnard College and expert on embodied cognition who was not involved with the study.

It has long been known that “clothing affects how other people perceive us as well as how we think about ourselves,” Dr. Galinsky said. Other experiments have shown that women who dress in a masculine way during a job interview are more likely to be hired, and a teaching assistant who wears formal clothes is perceived as more intelligent than one who dresses more casually. But the deeper question is: “Does your outfit alter how you approach and interact with the world?”

The researchers conducted three experiments in which the clothes did not vary but their symbolic meaning was manipulated. In the first, 58 undergraduates were randomly assigned to wear a white lab coat or street clothes. Then they were given a test for selective attention based on their ability to notice incongruities, as when the word “red” appears in the color green. Those who wore the white lab coats made about half as many errors on incongruent trials as those who wore regular clothes.

In the second experiment, 74 students were randomly assigned to one of three options: wearing a doctor’s coat, wearing a painter’s coat or seeing a doctor’s coat. Then they were given a test for sustained attention. They had to look at two very similar pictures side by side on a screen and spot four minor differences, writing them down as quickly as possible. Those who wore the doctor’s coat, which was identical to the painter’s coat, found more differences. They had acquired heightened attention. Those who wore the painter’s coat or were primed with merely seeing the doctor’s coat found fewer differences between the images.

The third experiment explored this priming effect more thoroughly. Does simply seeing a physical item, like the coat, affect behavior? Students either wore a doctor’s coat or a painter’s coat, or were told to notice a doctor’s lab coat displayed on the desk in front of them for a long period of time. All three groups wrote essays about their thoughts on the coats. Then they were tested for sustained attention. Again, the group that wore the doctor’s coat showed the greatest improvement in attention.

The morale is: “You have to wear the coat, see it on your body and feel it on your skin for it to influence your psychological processes.” 

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