Enclothed Cognition: How Uniforms Affect Work Performance

Fast Company contributor Lauren Steele published a post in early April 2020 discussing the clothing choices of people who work at home. Her piece was particularly appropriate given that so many workers have been stuck at home due to coronavirus. In it, Steele referenced a study done in 2012 looking at something known as ‘enclothed cognition’.

Despite the term not being mainstream, researchers concluded that enclothed cognition is a verifiable phenomenon. It is a phenomenon demonstrated in the way people perform based on their clothing AND their perceptions of that clothing. The research gave some credence to the idea of dressing for success.

Uniforms Are More Professional

Alsco, the company that pioneered healthcare uniform rentals more than 100 years ago, says that employers have long believed that company uniforms are more professional than street clothes. Some employers have required uniforms for a long time, primarily as a means of creating a specific image and encouraging employees to adopt the proper mindset at work.

However, are these long-held principles accurate? According to the research, yes. The research in question was carried out in 2012 by a team at Northwestern University. Their results were published in the Journal of Experimental Social Psychology.

Curious about the whole idea of dressing for success, the researchers wanted to know two things. First, they wanted to know how people perceive the clothing they see others wearing. Second, they wanted to know if the clothes a person wears has any impact on performance. Needless to say that the results of the study proved rather interesting.

Perceptions of Others’ Clothing

To test the perceptions that people have of the clothing others wear, researchers devised a short survey dealing with white lab coats. Survey participants were shown a picture of a white lab coat and were then asked to rate the extent to which they associated the lab coat with various characteristics including attentiveness, responsibility, carefulness, and scientific focus.

Survey results revealed that the participants “held strong associations between the lab coat and each of the attention related constructs.” In other words, the participants agreed that a person wearing a lab coat was likely to be more attentive, more scientifically focused, etc.

Perceptions of One’s Own Clothing

Next, researchers wanted to understand how those perceptions affect people in terms of their own clothing. They set up three experiments. The first experiment tested the performance of subjects both wearing and not wearing white lab coats.

The second and third experiments tested performance only after telling participants that the lab coat was either a doctor’s coat or a painter’s coat. Researchers wanted the second and third experiments to help them better understand how people perceive themselves based on their clothing.

To no one’s surprise, those wearing lab coats performed better in the first experiment. In terms of experiments 2 and 3, those participants who were told they were wearing a doctor’s coat performed better than those who thought they were wearing the painter’s coat.

We Are Affected by Our Clothing

At the end of the day, researchers demonstrated the reality of enclothed cognition. They demonstrated that we are affected by our clothing; that what we wear does affect how we perform. Moreover, what we wear affects how we perceive ourselves. What employers seem to have known intuitively was born out in the research.

The research might explain why school uniforms used to be mandatory in many places around the country. It also explains why certain industries still require formal uniforms for employees. In addition to branding and positive image, official company uniforms apparently improve productivity, too. Who knew?