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Enclothed Cognition: Threads Have Impact

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Virginia Woolf, seen as one of the most significant modernist 20th-century authors, penned, “There is much to support the view that it is clothes that wear us and not we them; we may make them take the mould of arm or breast, but they would mould our hearts, our brains, our tongues to their liking.”

As many have realized, it’s not so much that we wear the clothes but that the clothes wear us. The impact clothing has on people has been extensively studied. Researchers at Northwestern University, cognitive psychologists Hajo Adam and Adam Galinsky, have found that the clothing we wear affects our psychological states as well as our performance levels. They created the term “enclothed cognition” for this finding.

Emily vanSonnenberg, a UCLA positive psychology lecturer, consultant and healer, is highly sought for her psychological research into practical guidance and goal-directed strategies that enhance meaning, fulfillment and motivation. She shares that when putting on a piece of clothing, we are essentially putting on a symbol.

“Enclothed cognition is the psychological and performance-related effects that wearing specific articles of clothing have on the person wearing them,” shared Emily. “Enclothed cognition is part of a larger field of research known as embodied cognition, which finds that humans think with both their brains and their bodies. Based on a piece of clothing’s symbolic representation, our emotions, behaviors and performance are impacted.”  

An experiment conducted by Adam and Galinsky demonstrates the powerful impact clothing can have on us. Some individuals donned white lab coats, while members of another group wore street clothes. Both groups participated in selective attention exams that calculated their abilities to notice inconsistencies. Those in the white lab coats made almost half as many errors as those participants who wore street clothes. Not only can an individual’s performance improve because of their clothing but a person’s perceptions of you can be altered, which can be a double-edged sword.

“Within mental health, there’s been talk about ‘white coats’ and that they can be a barrier because you’re seen as a scientist. In behavioral work, your patients might be put off,” noted Gregory Nawalanic, PsyD, clinical director of psychology services at The University of Kansas Health System’s Strawberry Hill Campus.. “However, this isn’t universal. Some folks need that impression. They see a white coat as expertise. The response will vary by the audience and you have to know that audience.”

Research shows that doctors donning white coats are generally thought to be highly intelligent, precise and scientific thinkers, while artistic painters wearing this jacket can be seen as creative, free-spirited types. Our personal experiences and notions influence us to create these judgments. When a person pigeonholes an article of clothing while wearing that article of clothing or seeing it worn, then the characteristic, strength and/or ability indicated by it seems to have a quantifiable impact on psychological states and performance.

vanSonnenberg adds that clothes can exemplify a personality, or energy, all their own, and the now symbolic nature of specific articles of clothing allows us to literally “put on” or “wear” a feeling, express a belief or behave in an expected or specific way that is widely understood by others.

Clearly, there’s scientific backing to the glorious feeling that buying and sporting a new outfit can have on a person’s attitude. Not only can new fashion deliver an incredibly positive impact on how one feels about themselves but how they will perform. “New items are found to produce increases in positive emotions that impact behavior and performance. These heightened emotions regarding the new item tend to wear off over time, a phenomenon called hedonic adaptation,” advised vanSonnenberg. “The clothing we wear, what we think it represents or symbolizes, impacts how we subsequently behave or perform. For example, a white button-down shirt will likely trigger different abstract concepts and thus, sensations and behaviors as compared to a ruffled light blue dress. Most women will feel more inclined to dance in the dress than in the shirt, and likewise, most will prefer to interview for a serious role in that shirt versus the dress. The symbols each of these pieces of clothing represent in our mind impact our performance.”

Clothing can have a major bearing on how we see ourselves and how others view us. Given the positivity a wardrobe can impart, Emily offers these suggestions to get the most from your threads. “Begin by doing an inventory to identify which articles of clothing you own and the sensation or feeling they produce within,” she advised. “Does your clothing reflect how you want to feel? Then, before getting dressed each day, check in with yourself and ask, ‘How do I intend to feel today?’ Whatever answer comes through, match it to the clothing and accessories that will induce that, and have fun.”

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