Enclothed Cognition—Wearing A Doctor’s Coat Makes You More Careful

Lab coatsI cannot do a better job than Northwestern’s Hajo Adam and Adam Galinsky in describing their peer-reviewed paper “Enclothed cognition,” which appeared in the Journal of Experimental Social Psychology.

We introduce the term “enclothed cognition” to describe the systematic influence that clothes have on the wearer’s psychological processes. We offer a potentially unifying framework to integrate past findings and capture the diverse impact that clothes can have on the wearer by proposing that enclothed cognition involves the co-occurrence of two independent factors—the symbolic meaning of the clothes and the physical experience of wearing them.

In other words, our authors have hypothesized that the clothing you wear can change your “psychological processes.” I bet they’re right. Try showing up the office on Monday in a thong and then on Tuesday in a suit. Record your “psychological processes” on both days and you’re sure to see a difference.

The authors didn’t think of thongs, or even bikinis or diapers, items of apparel which one guesses would have provided unambiguous evidence of enclothed cognition, or unclothed incognition if you prefer. They instead decided to work with white lab coats. Why? Well, word on the scientific street was that “Wearing a lab coat thus signifies a scientific focus and an emphasis on being careful and attentive—attributes that involve the importance of paying attention to the task at hand and not making errors.” They “predicted that wearing a lab coat would increase performance on attention-related tasks.”

Naturally, science is no good without experiments. After all, it could be that a doctor wearing an outfit designed by Cher has no effect on his patient’s ability to take the doctor seriously. So data must be taken and papers written. And our authors did not just one, not just two, but three full experiments.

In Experiment 1, physically wearing a lab coat increased selective attention compared to not wearing a lab coat. In Experiments 2 and 3, wearing a lab coat described as a doctor’s coat increased sustained attention compared to wearing a lab coat described as a painter’s coat, and compared to simply seeing or even identifying with a lab coat described as a doctor’s coat. Thus, the current research suggests a basic principle of enclothed cognition—it depends on both the symbolic meaning and the physical experience of wearing the clothes.

These experiments measured both “selective attention and sustained attention” to test the “core hypothesis that enclothed cognition depends on two independent factors—actually wearing the clothes and the symbolic meaning of the clothes.”

In other words, they dressed up college students in white lab coats and asked them to “indicate as quickly and accurately as possible whether a series of letter strings was presented in red or blue on a computer screen.” Sometimes the screen flashed the red letters RED and the blue letters BLUE (congruency) and sometimes blue letters RED and red letters BLUE (incongruency).

Stunningly, they found that college students “in the wearing-a-lab-coat condition made around half as many errors as participants in the not-wearing-a-lab-coat condition on incongruent trials.” This was backed by a juicy p-value of 0.04, which is less than the publishable limit.

Unfortunately, the two groups made “the same number of errors on non-incongruent trials.” By which they mean that the two groups did not make the same number of errors, but the p-value measuring this difference was greater than the magic number (it was stated as greater than 0.28).

The authors then tried two other experiments in which some of the kids pretend they were actually wearing doctor coats and other that they were wearing painter coats. Or something. Those who thought they were most similar to Doogie Howser did slightly better, but not always, than the Blue Collar kids on some bookkeeping tasks.

What’s most interesting about all these kinds of studies (like yesterday’s) is the discussion which accompanies the experimental findings. It’s here that researchers really let the speculation fly, the point where the meager statistical evidence is extended into the farthest reaches of the authors’ imaginations.

For instance, our authors figured that their findings might explain why “people who wear nurse uniforms maybe be [sic] less likely to administer electric shocks because wearing a nurse uniform might trigger associated concepts of caring and altruistic behavior.”

And this is contrasted with those folks who wear large hoods and who “may be more likely to administer electric shocks because wearing a large hood or other types of identity-concealing clothes might conjure up images of robbers, terrorists, and aggressive or deviant behaviors.”

So the next time you visit your proctologist and you discover him wearing a large hood, beware!


Thanks to reader Gary Boden for suggesting this topic.


  1. Big Mike

    “So the next time you visit your proctologist and you discover him wearing a large hood, beware!”

    Oh, sure, so *NOW* you tell me!

  2. JH

    Cognitive benefit! More reasons to wear closed-toe shoes, safety glasses and a lab coat in chemistry and anatomy laboratory classes, in addition to protective purposes.

    I am now wondering if wearing an apron in the kitchen would help me make more delicious food.

  3. Speed

    My experience is that people who brandish the trappings of authority are insecure and easily manipulated.

  4. Briggs


    Sounds like a good basis for a grant. Put me in for 10%.

  5. Key ingredient missing: test tubes in the breast pocket!

    Note that on TV, “scientists” are always portrayed as wearing lab coats with test tubes in the pocket. That is how the viewer knows the character is a scientist. Just like cowboys always have six-shooters in holsters.

    If we don’t wear the appropriate costumes, nobody would know who we are.

    The experimenters should have clothed the subjects (the usual lab rats of choice, college students) in a variety of costumes: cowboy, clown, banker, ballerina, artist (beret and smock), chef (funny hat), football player, etc.

    PS – I am wearing blue jeans and a golf shirt as I type. Guess my IQ!

  6. Katie

    The good news is with research like this we can look forward to having doctors who were merely issued their smocks (by some rag-tag group of well-intended researchers, perhaps), rather than having to go through the trouble and cost of med school and those pesky residency programs. Imagine the boon for the implementation of the Affordable Care Act. Doctors really will be a dime a dozen.

  7. LarryT

    Northwestern’s Hajo Adam and Adam Galinsky prove that going or teaching there causes intellectual retardation.

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