Enclothed Cognition in times of pandemic

Fashion trends are the least of our concerns right now, with much of the world still in lockdown and most of us opting for anything that is comfy, relatively clean and stretches over our slightly expanded snack-loving physiques. Personally, I now live in joggers and a raft of slogan tees. Most of us are unable to go into our places of work and physically be amongst our colleagues, leading to lawyers, professional volleyball players, accountants, masseuses, graphic designers and events organisers alike adopting a more laid back style, leaving behind their work uniforms and personas.

Some of the only work attire we now see is that of the emergency services, shop workers, cleaners, carers, and delivery workers; differentiating and delineating the non-essential from the essential workers. While being immensely grateful to these people I also can’t help but wonder what lasting behavioural and cognitive changes there will be following the pandemic. We clap and praise certain professions now and espouse more gratitude and respect for delivery drivers than we ever have. If the way we view certain professions has changed, might the meaning we attribute to their clothing also change? Yep, I’m thinking about enclothed cognition….but first, for those of you not familiar with the term let’s look at the study by Adam and Galinsky (2012) that brought the phenomena to the world’s attention

Enclothed Cognition by Adam & Galinsky (2012) – Journal of experimental social psychology

What did they do?

  • Adam and Galinsky devised a set of experiments that would show the effect clothes can have on our psychological processes – our cognitions, attention and behaviour, including ability
  • They wanted to show the effect clothes can have on the internal workings of individuals because so much of research around clothes focusses on how others perceive us based on what we wear e.g. women wearing red being seen as promiscuous (urgh), as mentioned in my previous blog, Judging Humans By Their Covers
  • Their hypothesis was that wearing a certain item of clothing that had symbolic meaning (symbolises certain traits) would elicit those associated traits within the wearer e.g. A fireman’s helmet and feelings of bravery
  • The symbolic item they used for the study was a lab coat. Using a survey they found that people associated this lab coat with the positive attributes of a scientist or doctor e.g. attentiveness, carefulness, responsibility and scientific focus
  • Three experiments were run
    1. Participants asked to complete a Stroop Task (state the ink colour of words presented on a screen) wearing either their own clothes or a lab coat – testing selective attention
    2. Participants asked to complete a visual search task (a kind of spot the difference type activity) while wearing a white coat they were told was a painter’s coat or told was a doctor’s coat, or while seeing a white coat they were told was a doctor’s coat – testing sustained attention
    3. Participants asked to complete a visual search task and an essay on their thoughts on the white coat while wearing a doctor’s coat or an artistic painter’s coat. Another group were asked to write an essay on how they identified with a doctor’s coat that was displayed in front of them (but not worn) – testing sustained attention again, but also the impact of exposure time and connection between self and clothing

What did they find?

  • Participants wearing a lab coat performed better on the Stroop Task and showed greater selective attention skills than those wearing their own clothes
  • Participants wearing a doctor’s coat found more differences than those wearing a painter’s coat and those who saw a doctor’s coat. No difference in sustained attention was found between those who wore a painter’s coat and those who saw a doctor’s coat
  • Participants wearing a doctor’s coat found more differences than those who saw and identified with a doctor’s coat, and those who saw and identified with the doctor’s coat performed better than those who wore the painter’s coat

In summary, Adam and Galinsky found that the act of wearing a lab coat increased selective attention and also increased sustained attention when it was described as a doctor’s coat. This is because of the positive traits people associate with doctor’s which would be helpful for us to have when attempting cognitively taxing tasks. It was also found that in order for an item of clothing to have maximum unclothed cognition effect, it needs to be worn. The wearer needs to draw meaning from the item, identify with it and have the physiological interaction that is experienced through the wearing of an item.

Take home thoughts?

Paying attention to the clothes we wear on a day to day basis and for specific occasions may not be as superficial as fashion cynics would have us believe (tell them science says so). It can actually be beneficial for our performance to wear clothing which we associate with the traits we wish to have or need. For example, for an interview, exam or even a date, take the time to chose something that speaks to you and symbolises what you want to portray and feel.

While we as a society pay a great deal of attention to what others think of us and what we wear says about us, perhaps we should pay greater attention to how we feel in our clothing, what it says to us and whether that outfit is conducive to the tasks we wish to take on. Right now in lockdown, that might be considering what to wear to feel motivated and ready to take on a days work (spoiler – it probably isn’t pyjamas).

If Adam and Galinksy’s study were recreated today or just after this pandemic, what new or strengthened associations might be explored? Might the uniform of a delivery driver be associated with perseverance, reliability and dependability, and might a nurses uniform, which before may have been rightly associated with care, now also be associated with bravery?

References

Adam, H., & Galinsky, A. D. (2012). Enclothed cognition. Journal of experimental social psychology48(4), 918-925

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