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The psychology of dressing down. Tie or no tie, heels or no heels, that is the question

Although it’s generally not an issue in the world of IT, except for companies that have an official “dress down Friday” policy, there is a school of thought that the more casual the attire, the more creative the thought processes it will provoke. That’s why we all have the image of the so-called trendy design agency where jeans and T shirts are the every day dress code and people spend the day milling around, playing pool and waiting for creative inspiration to strike.

It does seem logical that the more relaxed the atmosphere, the freer the thinking will be but, counter intuitively, research has shown that the opposite can also be the case.

In a research project carried out in 2015 by academics from California State and Columbia Universities and entitled “The Cognitive Consequences of Formal Clothing” some very surprising findings emerged.

One of the academics, called Abraham Rutchick, summed these up very succinctly when he reported that “Putting on formal clothes makes us feel powerful, and that changes the basic way we see the world.”  To be more specific  the research team found that wearing clothing that’s more formal than usual makes people think more broadly and holistically, rather than narrowly and about fine details. In the language of psychology, wearing a suit encourages people to use abstract processing more readily than concrete processing.

As the phrase suggests, abstract processing is a far more fluid way of thinking in which all options in any scenario are treated in the same way and all permutations can be seen as being equally valid for consideration.

This is regarded as being a very useful form of behaviour in almost any business situation. For example when a person is operating efficiently and is being entrusted to govern their own destiny the looser nature of abstract thought means they are likely to come up with more surprising and innovative solutions. Even when the opposite occurs and a person receives negative feedback or criticism, approaching it in an abstract way makes it easier to absorb it as useful advice whereas a more concrete thought process would make it a hurtful and demoralising experience.

The research also did some experiments into whether the formal business suit was unique in changing an individual’s psychological state by asking two groups of volunteers to put on white coats. One group was told that it was a doctor’s coat while the second were told that theirs was a painter and decorator’s coat. Each group was then set exactly the same cognitive tests to complete. The group wearing what they believed to be the doctor’s coat significantly out-performed in terms of focus and concentration.

Obviously, the other key aspect to how the clothes we wear affect how we act and are perceived lies in what they say about our position in the hierarchy. In a nutshell, the better the quality of the clothes we wear the higher up we give the impression of being and the more respect we can expect to receive from co-workers.

But, as the experiments described above show, it is just as important that we think highly of ourselves driven by the clothes we are wearing.

So, like so many things in life, it’s a complex picture. Dressing up obviously has an effect but wearing a uniform which emits clear cultural signals, such as a white doctor’s coat, can do just as much to influence the way we perform.

However, as a recruitment consultants with our clients’ best interests at heart it would be remiss of us  if we didn’t point out  that turning up for an interview in jeans and a T shirt is never going to get you very far at all . . .