Introducing "enclothed cognition" – how what we wear affects how we think

Whether donning a suit for an interview or a sexy outfit for a date, it’s obvious that most of us are well aware of the power of clothing to affect how other people perceive us. But what about the power of our clothes to affect our own thoughts?

Relevant to this question is the growing “embodied cognition” literature showing that the position and state of our bodies can affect our thoughts – for example, cleaning their hands makes people feel morally purer. In a new study Hajo Adam and Adam Galinsky propose that clothes can have similar effects on our thoughts – a phenomenon they call “enclothed cognition”. In contrast to embodied cognition effects which are fairly direct, the researchers think enclothed cognition effects will depend on two conditions – first, the symbolic meaning of the clothing and second, the actual wearing of the clothes.

To test this idea, the researchers focused on the power of white coats, synonymous with scientists and their attention to detail. In an initial study, 58 students took part in a test of their powers of selective attention known as the Stroop Test (on critical trials, the ink colour of a word must be named whilst ignoring the colour meaning of the word, e.g. RED written in blue ink). Half the students performed the task in a scientist’s white lab coat (they were told that this was to be consistent with previous participants who’d taken part during building work and worn the coat for protection). The other students just wore their own clothes. The key finding – students in the lab coats made half as many errors on the critical trials of the Stroop Test.

The researchers next wanted to test their proposal that enclothed cognition effects depend on the symbolic meaning of clothes and actually wearing them. For these studies, the participants completed sustained attention tests that involved spotting differences between two similar images. Participants who donned a lab coat performed significantly better than others who merely saw a lab coat on the desk (thus suggesting the enclothed effect is more powerful than mere priming) or others who wore the same kind of coat but were told it belonged to a painter.

Is the enclothed effect about some kind of identification with the clothing? It seems it is more than that. For a final study, participants who wore a lab coat performed better on the sustained attention task than those who wore no coat but wrote an essay about how they identified with a lab coat. In turn, those who wrote the essay performed better than participants who wore a painter’s coat.

“Clothes can have profound and systematic psychological and behavioural consequences for their wearers,” the researchers said. Future research, they suggested, could examine the effects of other types of clothing: might the robe of a priest make us more moral? Would a firefighter’s suit make us more brave? “Although the saying goes that clothes do not make the man,” the researchers concluded, “our results suggest they do hold a strange power over their wearers.”

As well as building on the embodied cognition literature, these new findings also chime with recent “positive contagion” research showing that amateur golfers’ performance improved, and their perception of the hole changed, when they thought they were playing with a putter that belonged to a professional.


Adam, H., and Galinsky, A. (2012). Enclothed Cognition. Journal of Experimental Social Psychology DOI: 10.1016/j.jesp.2012.02.008 (thanks to Marc Brysbaert for the tip-off). 

Post written by Christian Jarrett for the BPS Research Digest.

28 thoughts on “Introducing "enclothed cognition" – how what we wear affects how we think”

  1. “A scientist worthy of a lab coat should be able to make original discoveries while wearing a clown suit, or give a lecture in a high squeaky voice from inhaling helium.”

    -Eliezer Yudkowsky

    1. I do not think I would listen to a lecture on any subject given in a helium balloon voice.

  2. The student evaluation of teaching literature suggests that students believe they learn more from us when we dress up (wear suits.) I originally interpreted this to be a reflection of student bias. Now I must consider the possibility that they are right: we teach better when dressed up!

  3. I always get more done at the office when I wear business attire. Like nice business pants and s sweater seems to be the most productive days. Jeans and a casual shirt, equates to very little initiative.

  4. “Although the saying goes that clothes do not make the man” …
    Eh? The exact opposite surely? The contradicting phrase has been around since ancient Greece. As Shakespeare put it – “For the apparel oft proclaims the man”.
    Or then again Mark Twain said – “Clothes make the man. Naked people have little or no influence in society.”

  5. “… might the robe of a priest make us more moral?”

    That would depend on what a priest's robe means to you. You might belong to a different culture or religion, so that a Catholic priest's vestments would be unfamiliar to you, so all you'd feel on wearing them would be some degree of silliness (at wearing a strange getup) or discomfort (at wearing something that doesn't belong to you, culturally); you might be an atheist who sees religious leaders as misguided at best and deceitful or hypocritical at worst; or your experience with priests might be a very bad one that leads you to think of them as not moral people.

  6. Interesting set of studies. In my own work in leadership development, I help my clients recognize how many elements play a role in how they show up as leaders (or their behavior more generally). One of my colleagues talks about the “the corporate rib” referring to a phenomena that occurs when business people put their suit on in the morning and remains until they take it off – that their chest puffs out, their shoulders get higher, they physically hold more tension in the body and their attitude gets more aggressive. I’m interested to hear if you know of any studies like that of the corporate rib that describe how clothing changes not only cognition but emotion, expressed personality style, etc.

  7. you might be an atheist who sees religious leaders as misguided at best and deceitful or hypocritical at worst; or your experience with priests might be a very bad one that leads you to think of them as not moral people.

  8. I think this article & research study was a waste of time, the common person on main street could have given the same info. Waste… find solutions to world problems like poverty or save a dog from being chained verses fenced.

  9. Michael: I'm glad there are people looking into “info that the common person on main street could have given you”. Turns out: a lot of things the common person on main street believes are wrong. And a lot of things that scientists believe is wrong, also (see the fantastic 2010 Jonah Lehrer article in the New Yorker).

    I feel like your blog reply is a waste of time. You should have spent it instead “finding solutions to world problems like poverty or save a dog from eing chained verses fenced”.

  10. Has someone checked whether this is not just a special case of the novelty effect? For example productivity going up when new scents are introduced into factories or the colour of the walls changed. This effect was given a name, someone in occupational psychology will know. Maxine Sacks

  11. This also reminds me of another finding that people will answer the same questions very differently if they are told to think creatively. So maybe the lab coat acts as an instruction in the same way. These ideas date from many decades ago.

  12. Interesting study, and it raises two questions. First, I agree with Maxine. Is the novelty effect in play here since the “wardrobe” was out of the norm for most of the participants? Therefore the effect might have been more of a unique effect than if they had been dressed more formally. Second, what is the longitudinal effect of dressing better? How much will adaptation come into play as the individual wears the more formal clothing all of time?
    However, what I enjoyed about the research is the scientific approach to a business application. There have been non-scientific studies done in the US that indicate people are less productive when they are “dressed down.” Interesting to learn there might be some reality to those studies.

  13. When I was a teenager, I chronically bit my nails to the quick. One day, I bought some glue-on nails, mostly just for fun. I was astonished at how differently I felt with long nails. Not only could I scratch itches and pick up little things more easily, but I also felt somehow more competent and accomplished (where did *that* come from?) Even though they all fell off within a day or two, the experience was sufficient to make me stop biting my nails for evermore. I'd say what I “wore” definitely changed my thinking!

  14. I think you may be referring to The Hawthorne Effect 🙂 However, in these studies the participant didn't undergo a change within the study. They simply took part in their own clothes or wore a lab coat so the effects couldn't be due to this. As a psychologist and coach I have long encouraged my clients to consider their physical environment and it's effect on their productivity. I think this study is interesting because it does suggest that other aspects of readying oneself for work have a significant effect (i.e. getting dressed in productive attire). If I'm ever working from home I secretly like to write up reports in my pyjamas from time to time, so I guess I will have to give up this habit! 🙂

  15. Purely anecdotal, but, whenever i'm tinkering on my motorcycle, I tend to work for longer and with more focus when I wear a respirator and protective eyewear. It gets me into a “flow”.

  16. Great research and it doesn't only limit to lab coats. I am Style and Fashion Psychologist and I specialise in creating image for my clients that not only represents them well but also helps them feel better about themselves. I know a lot about the effect the clothes you're wearing can have on your psyche but there is certainly not enough research on this subject.

  17. This is why i always dress myself as if i am wardrobe for the movie of my life. All the worlds a stage….

  18. Are you kidding me? Like people didn't know that what you wear makes you feel something? Give me a break. Don't these professors have anything else to study? Nothing like academics to translate “I feel great” into “enclothed cognition.” Please.

  19. I seem to recall a fairly well known social psych study in which women had to decide whether to give electric shocks to someone, and if so, what voltage. Results were compared for women wearing either nurses' outfits or costumes resembling the KKK. There was a significant effect of the costume worn, so that women dressed as nurses gave fewer or weaker shocks than when they wore KKK outfits. The suggestion was that the outfit worn provided a salient cue about how to behave, e.g. nurses are supposed to be compassionate. Of course the present study involved performance measures, which are harder to deliberately influence compared to decisions about whether to shock someone. But both studies suggest that clothes can influence people in subtle ways.

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