From Gwen Stefani’s post-breakup transparent black outfit at the American Music Awards to Hillary Clinton‘s no-nonsense pantsuits on the campaign trail, we’re all guilty of putting faith in our clothing to give us a boost of confidence or even a bit of luck.
Turns out that’s not so superstitious or silly. In fact, a growing body of research suggests that the clothes we wear impact our thoughts, behavior, political views and even our biology. Clothes can impact how we think and succeed, thanks in part to something researchers have termed “enclothed cognition.”
We’ve long known that clothes impact how others see and treat us, and even how we act. “But the deeper question” with enclothed cognition, as the New York Times put it, “is whether the clothing you wear affects your psychological processes.” Several studies have recently answered that question with a resounding “yes.”
“People may hear ‘fashion’ and think, ‘not relevant to my life’ or ‘frivolous’, but in our work [as stylists], we see the amazing transformative power of clothing and appearance on people every day,” Irene Kim of Toronto fashion consultancy La Closette told Mic.
The psychologists and experts who spoke to Mic would likely agree.
Need to think big? Wear a suit.
A study published earlier this year in Social Psychological and Personality Science showed that dressing in formal clothing resulted in an enhanced ability to think abstractly, meaning suiting up for the office could help you to dream big and think long-term.
“It’s an interesting speculative finding,” Abraham Rutchick, Associate Professor of Psychology at California State University and one of the study authors, told Mic. “[Formal clothing] makes you think more abstractly, which is more broad, more general, more ‘forest,’ versus narrow, specific and ‘trees.’ For big-time thinking, go big time with the fancy wardrobe.
Wearing a suit could also make you a better negotiator.
If you want to come out on top in a business negotiation, you probably know not to turn up to the meeting in sweatpants — unless you’re Mark Zuckerberg.
A study last year showed that participants who swapped their normal clothes for suits got the better end result in a simulated biotech deal to the tune of more than $2 million. The casually dressed men, on the other hand, lost $1.2 million.
A reading following the experiment showed the casual dressers’ testosterone levels had dipped by an average of 20%. Overall, wearing a suit “induced dominance,” the study authors noted, even on the hormonal level.
But going casual could help you connect.
These findings don’t mean you should veto jeans at the office just yet. “It depends on what kind of work you’re doing. If you’re looking for detail orientation, don’t go formal. If you’re looking for more interpersonal connection, don’t go formal,” Rutchick said.
Yale School of Management Assistant Professor Michael W. Kraus also warned against foregoing casual wear.
“Clothing can be used strategically in a number of ways and its meaning can differ based on the setting,” he toldMic. “Casual office wear is a likely attempt to reduce barriers between co-workers and improve teamwork.”
As for how it makes you think and act, research hasn’t directly proved that khakis relax you psychologically. But previous research suggests that dressing down all week can lead to “relaxed manners, relaxed morals, and relaxed productivity.” Sounds like a great way to connect.
Carrying a luxury purse may make you more politically conservative.
Yajin Wang at the University of Minnesota found that women carrying Prada handbags versus non-luxury totes are more likely to engage in selfish behaviors, such as not giving money to charity unless doing so would boost their status. Wang also discovered that slinging a Prada over your shoulder weakens self-control, for example when eating candy.
But perhaps the most interesting finding in Wang’s work is that carrying a Louis Vuitton bag for just fifteen minutes made women perceive themselves as more politically conservative and espouse more fiscally conservative views compared to study participants issued a not-so-fancy bag.
“Regarding fiscal political attitudes, women who used a Louis Vuitton handbag expressed more conservative views than women in control condition,” Wang noted, adding that there was no such discrepancy when it came to social political attitudes.
A heavy backpack can make you eat more healthily.
We often talk about guilt as a weight we have to bear. Now a study proves it: In 2014, researchers from Harvard Business School found that carrying a heavy weight around increased feelings of guilt, which led to favoring guilt-reducing activities, choosing boring tasks over fun ones and light snacks over calorie-laden ones.
“Wearing a heavy backpack heightens participants’ self-reported guilt and influences their subsequent behavior in the form of self-punishment,” the study authors noted.
More intense feelings of guilt lead us to try to offset culpability by engaging in “good” behavior, like forgoing calories or doing activities we don’t enjoy. So if you’re feeling bad, it makes sense to literally lighten your load.
Wearing workout clothes makes you more likely to hit the gym.
The symbolic meaning of clothes affects how we think when we wear them, according to the 2012 study “Enclothed Cognition” by Hajo Adam and Adam D. Galinsky. In the study that coined the phrase, the researchers showed that when people wore a white coat they believed belonged to a doctor, they actually demonstrated an increased ability to pay attention, while those who thought the coat belonged to a painter failed to show the same improvement.
These findings could apply to the current “athleisure” trend. Wearing tight, neon and Lycra clothes not only at the gym but in the office, on the street and even on a date might help you to get in shape.
“I think it would make sense that when you wear athletic clothing, you become more active and more likely to go to the gym and work out,” co-author Hajo Adam told the Atlantic.
“As our brain is designed to look for consistency and harmony, it will naturally try to match the way you feel with the subconscious associations you have about a particular piece of clothing,” Kate Nightingale, founder of consumer behavior consultancy Style Psychology, told Mic. “When you put on a piece of clothing which you associate with strength, your brain will attempt to match that association by making you feel stronger. “
So while you’re browsing the last of the Thanksgiving sales, making your Christmas wish list and contemplating those New Year’s closet resolutions, consider the impact of your sartorial choices on, well, everything — your performance at work, eating habits, political preferences, exercise goals. Perhaps you can shop your way to a better year?