Heatwave-inspired dress-down policies can be fraught with danger – as I learned myself the other day when I arrived at the office sporting a coral pink polo shirt my wife had led me to believe was hugely stylish but which my colleagues were eager to tell me was anything but. However, could it also be that, when businesses allow their staff to dress down, they are sabotaging their creative powers?
That at any rate is the possibility examined in a new paper from a group of US academics, The cognitive consequences of formal clothing. At least as far back as the 1980s, it has been argued that the way we dress can influence self-perception – that is, how we think about ourselves. Now researchers have started looking into the idea that what we wear can also influence the actions we take.
One of the areas addressed by the paper was the difference between the ‘concrete’ and ‘abstract’ means of processing information. The former is seen as a more literal or tangible way of thinking about things while the latter is more conceptual – so, for example, ‘five apples’ would be concrete while the idea of ‘the number five’ would be abstract.
The researchers carried out five studies and, in general, found that when people are wearing more formal clothing, they are capable of and demonstrate higher levels of more abstract thinking. We will not go through all five studies here but, as an example, one asked the subjects of the research – all university students – to pick from a list of options their preferred description of voting.
The more formally-dressed subjects showed an inclination to go for ‘influencing the election’, which is a high level of abstraction and a higher level of thinking than the more literal option of ‘marking a ballot’, for which those wearing, as it were, shorts and a T-shirt, demonstrated a preference. It was a similar story with the question: “Is a camel an appropriate example of a vehicle?”
That – as those of you who happen to be reading this piece in top hat and tails will already have spotted – is a test of ‘cognitive processing and category inclusiveness’, which translates as ‘how well people can categorise things’. Clearly cars are a type of vehicle but, if you are able to think more abstractly, as more formally dressed people apparently can, then you will more readily see camels as vehicles too.
Nor is it just abstract thought that is enhanced by wearing more formal dress – another study by the researchers found the three-piece-suiters also at an advantage when it came to thinking more globally. Here, the test involved looking at pictures – along the lines of the one below, where a large letter is made up of lots of smaller representations of a different letter – and saying what the bigger letter was.
Instinctively, the human mind will home in on the smaller letters of which the bigger one is comprised but the more formally dressed subjects were quicker to process the so-called ‘global’ component over the ‘local’ ones, thus demonstrating greater ‘perceptual coherence’ – or, to put it more simply, a greater ability to see the bigger picture.
The paper concludes that the clothing we wear “influences cognition broadly, impacting the processing style that changes how objects, people and events are construed”. It postulates this may be because, when we wear more formal clothes, we are somewhat separated from the world at large and thus think more consciously about how it operates.
All of which points to the gratifyingly contrarian view that more creative sectors may be better served by encouraging their employees to dress as 1950s bank managers rather than 1990s skateboarders. So maybe Mad Men’s Don Draper did not sport his razor-sharp wardrobe simply to look cool and I can wear a suit to future dress-down days and save my polo shirt for those who can appreciate true style.