The Science of Enclothed Cognition

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

31 thoughts on “The Science of Enclothed Cognition

  1. I worry about the influence clothing has on the brain, so I try to avoid it as much as possible. As a matter of fact, right now . . . uh, well let’s just say I’m not blogging under the influence.

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  2. On a slightly different but related topic, I sat in on several interviews at school. Some people came to the interview dressed like they could have just been doing manual labor in their backyard right before. I guess this is Interviewing 101, but if you don’t put any effort into how you look, it sends the wrong message.

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    1. that’s a shame when that happens, and to me it’s combination of our educational system’s lack of focusing on soft skills and life skills as well as lack of initiative on the interviewee’s part to find out what the expectations are for the interview. We try to drill it into our students what professional behavior looks like…

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  3. I don’t ascribe to this. I dress comfortably every day so that I can work effectively. I’ve done the dress up thing, and it’s not comfortable. And if I’m not comfortable that’s where my attention is drawn. However, I would never work in my pyjamas, even if I was at home.

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  4. I agree with this to an extent. I always try to dress up for my online classes even when the camera is off because it makes me feel like I’m actually in class and helps me concentrate.

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  5. in my job, in the sand, paint, laughter, water, and tears, of the pre-kinder, i go for comfort , casual, and washability. i’m sitting on the ground or climbing something most all day. once in a while, i love to get dressed up ‘fancy’ and go out to do something special. when i used to work in advertising, if anyone wore a tie or dress or skirt, they would ask if you were going for a job interview )

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  6. An interesting field of questioning and study. I do agree that your appearance has an effect on your own mindset and in many ways announces your intentions to the rest of the world. Although, I think the choice of what you where and how it effects you is highly individual. Our office has gone from “casual Fridays” to casual dress every day. If our staff was in contact with clients or vendors on a consistent level, I would worry about what impression it would give. But they are not, and the casual, comfortable attire allows them to be more comfortable and more focused on their tasks rather than their appearance. I know that I prefer washing my own jeans and polo shirts over sending out higher ticket business suits and shorts out for dry cleaning. Plus. I am a firm believer that I am being hired for my talents rather than how well I can dress up. Unfortunately, not every business owner or manager feels the same way. Great post, Jim! Really got me thinking!

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    1. I think that is certainly the trend for businesses to go more casual. Our accounting grads tell me that their firms often tell them to follow the dress code of their clients when they are at a client site. But if they are just in their own office for the day, they can be casual. And I agree, hopefully people are judged on their work, and not their appearance…


  7. For blogging I go for comfort however that doesn’t mean jim jams but if I have a zoom meeting I dress up smart casual…I am the same when I go shopping …Interesting post 🙂


  8. As a worker bee, i’ve been in jeans and t-shirts so long I barely know what to do with myself at weddings and funerals. It’s the only time slacks, button-up dress shirts, a jacket and loafers come out of the closet. I like nice clothes; I often find myself perusing clothing ads online, but I so rarely have an occasion to wear them it would be a waste of money. Also, I’m a big dude (6’3”, 270) so finding nice clothes that fit right is kind of a challenge.

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  9. Getting up five minutes before a Zoom teaching session? Kids today don’t know they’re born: I used to get up five minutes before a lecture began, and two minutes of that was the walk to the lecture theatre!

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  10. This subject always interested me. There are so many layers to this, but I found it interesting that you had such harsh judgment for your pj students. Surely there is more to this fashion statement than “I don’t take this class seriously”. Did you actually look at their level of performance in comparison to the better dressed students to substantiate this statement? I can think of many other reasons why a young person in first year university; did they have to wear uniform in high school and this is their first time making the decision of what to wear to school? Are they simply more comfortable in and feel that they will be able to absorb more of your material? Maybe being comfortable allows them to absorb the material better. Do you have well dressed students that are not performing well? Why is that? Would they be more into impressing their peers to concentrate on school? DO you have more pj students on Monday 8am class than Wednesday 2pm? Remember, kids need more sleep…I could go on and on, but you get my drift and I didn’t even say anything about the dress code of an archaeologist if you want to be taken seriously…think Indiana Jones.

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    1. all valid points. I didn’t mean to come off harsh, just concerned. I think my bigger issue was with some students propped up in bed while taking the course. That just seems like a tough way to take notes and to be engaged. I should have tried to do some comparisons among dress code styles, desk vs. bed, in terms of performance. And yes, you need to dress for the occasion. Each person needs to find the style that best suits them, and if pjs it is, then that is fine with me. 🙂

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  11. When I was teaching, I always considered my professional image was reflected in my uniform (so to speak). Forty years dressed in slacks, dress shirt, and tie told my students that I took my teaching as well as them seriously.

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