Never heard of “enclothed cognition”?
Neither had I until reading a recent story in the WSJ by reporter Ray Smith.
Enclothed cognition is an area of research that examines the signals clothes send to the brain, says Dr. Adam Galinsky, co-author of the research that coined the term. “In some ways, the clothes that you wear might have an even bigger impact because we can often see ourselves and what we’re wearing and that sort of draws that symbolic value [attached] to it even closer to our consciousness,” he says. His research showed that the combination of wearing certain clothes and their symbolic meaning led to more focused attention.
Researchers studying links between clothes, brain activity, and productivity have long found that dressing up for work can improve your performance. Some are now turning their attention to how these factors play out in dressing for remote work and Zoom meetings—including the unexpected rise of the nice tops/schlubby bottoms combo.
In other research, a 2015 study found that dressing more formally for work leads to higher levels of abstract, big-picture thinking associated with someone in a powerful position. To achieve the same effect at home, all you need to do is just dress a little bit more formally than you would at home normally.
Vanessa Bohns, associate professor of organizational behavior at Cornell University’s ILR School. Yet she recommends changing into clothing associated with work at the beginning of the day to cue a sense of being in serious work mode: “You feel physically different, and the clothes feel different so that tells your body, which also tells your mind, that this is work time.”
Dressing up too much—say wearing a formal business suit while working at home—could risk self-consciousness and distraction for some, Dr. Galinsky warns.
And one final tip about working from home; when work is over, it may be helpful to change into non-work clothes. Doing so shifts your brain into, ‘I can relax now. I can shift gears. I don’t have to be operating at this high cognitive level’,” says organizational psychologist Cathleen Swody, also a founding partner of executive-coaching firm Thrive Leadership.
It’s not really a new idea; Dress for Success is a 1975 book by John T. Molloy about the effect of clothing on a person’s success in business and personal life.
There is also an organization called Dress for Success, whose mission is to empower women to achieve economic independence by providing a network of support, professional attire, and the development tools to help women thrive in work and in life.
I shared the Wall Street Journal story with my students, and I told them I think it applies to school as well.
Coming to class dressed in your pajamas tells me, and likely the student subconsciously as well, that they are not taking that day’s class as seriously as they should be. This is even more important in the Zoom era when students are taking classes from their dorm rooms. I am sure it is mighty tempting to wake up five minutes before a Zoom class, run a brush through your hair, and then log in. To me, such an approach does not seem to be an effective way to learn. I think you have to put yourself in the right mindset, and getting out of bed and getting dressed properly for the day makes a big difference.
Several years ago I decided to try and up my dressing standards, which had gotten pretty casual, for the days I taught.
As a big fan of routine, I adopted the following schedule: Mondays I wore a suit; Wednesdays I dressed business casual, and Fridays were casual.
Since essentially nobody wears a suit while teaching anymore (at least where I teach), I really stood out on Mondays. And I would often be asked by other faculty if I had something special planned for the day.
I’m not sure if I taught any better on Mondays vs Fridays, but I did like that it saved me some time trying to decide what to wear those days.
Perhaps next week I’ll try to see if my dress seems to affect my teaching at all, but then I’ll have to worry about the Hawthorne effect…
And someday I should probably work on what I’m wearing on the days I don’t teach. But let’s not get too far ahead of ourselves…
*Image from Pace University