The Stroop Test: Dressing for Success

Mature woman dressed professional

Do we have any Shakespeare fans out there?  Those that are, will no doubt be familiar with Polonius’ famous remark in Hamlet that "the apparel oft proclaims the man".  In other words, he was saying that our clothes play a big part in making us who we are.

I wouldn’t like to suggest that the growth in the personal grooming industry has such poetic roots, but what was true back in Shakespeare’s time is undoubtedly still the case today.  Indeed, the modern world is awash with examples of how the clothing we wear significantly affects the perceptions people have of us.

And of course, there is the not so insignificant factor of how our clothes affect our own self image.  For instance, in the flexible working world, it is often recommended that people still dress as though they’re going to the office, as sitting down to work in your pyjamas does little to motivate you for the day ahead.

In the academic world, such a notion is known as embodied cognition, which attempts to explain how the clothes we wear affects the behaviors we exhibit whilst wearing them.  A recent study highlights just how powerful this can be.

The study asked participants to dress up in a white lab coat, which is of course synonymous with scientists and researchers, and comes with quite an array of characteristics and traits associated with it.  The researchers wanted to test whether the simple act of wearing the lab coat would prompt the wearer to begin acting more akin to that of a stereotypical scientist.

Central to the experiment is what’s known as a Stroop Test.  This is a famous psychological test, named after J. Ridley Stroop, who discovered the phenomenon in the 1930s.  It’s a fascinating test that demonstrates the reaction time for a particular task.  That task is usually a manifestation of one whereby a series of words are displayed, with each word being a colour.  The catch is that each word is also colored in, with the colour not matching the word itself.  Therefore it requires a degree of mental processing to ensure the right results.

Anyway, participants in the experiment were asked to complete a version of the Stroop Test.  Half of them were asked to do so whilst wearing a lab coat, with the remaining half completing the test in their normal clothes.  The lab coat was the only point of difference between the two groups.  How big an impact would it make?

Well, it transpired, quite a lot.  It emerged that the group who were wearing the lab coat did quite significantly better than their normally dressed peers.  Indeed, they produced half as many errors on the test as the other group.

Clothes can have profound and systematic psychological and behavioural consequences for their wearers,” the researchers said.

They hope in future to conduct similar experiments but with alternative forms of clothing.  For instance, might a fireman’s uniform encourage bravery in the wearer?  Would a priest’s uniform promote ethical behaviour?

There is undoubtedly an awful lot of guidance out there advising us on the right kind of clothing to wear at work, and it’s equally indisputable that image does play a part in our success at work, so what kind of outfit does the trick for you?