You’re not just doing it to please the boss: new research shows that wearing a suit and generally dressing formally can help you think more creatively.
The improvement applies specifically to abstract thought, according to a study in the journal of Social Psychological and Personality Science, which can be found here.
This form of thinking, as opposed to concrete thinking, is associated with more creativity, an ability to solve problems by bringing together pieces of information to a quick and logical conclusion.
Previous research indicated formal clothing is about fitting in with the dress standards of a company and also about getting a measure of respect.
A formal suit can also signal professionalism, but dressing style can also make people less approachable and distant.
For those in love with casual Friday, that so-called relaxation of standards is more about bringing people together than a reward — spending the day loosening up and sitting around in comfortable clothes.
Psychologists say that those with more relaxed clothing are signalling intimacy and familiarity.
There is a whole body of work about clothing and how this impacts on the local social environment.
For example, research has found that well-dressed and groomed women get the friendliest and fastest service when they visit a clothing boutique because sales assistants think they are more likely to buy.
And men who wear red run the risk of being seen as more aggressive and dominant.
But for women, the colour red can have a different impact. One study found that men tend to tip more to waitresses wearing red.
The latest study looks beyond how others perceive a person in more formal clothing.
“People wear formal clothing in a variety of situations, such as when at work, meeting someone new, or on a job interview,” writes Michael L. Slepian and colleagues of Columbia University in the study, “The Cognitive Consequences of Formal Clothing”.
Formal clothing can also be about creating a certain aloofness.
“People who wear formal clothes describe themselves as more competent and rational, whereas people who wear casual clothes describe themselves as more friendly and laid-back,” the researchers write.
The latest research, based on five studies, found that people have social distance and feelings of power when wearing more formal clothing.
The critical insight is that this feeling is a predictor of abstract thought processing.
In one of the studies, university students were told to bring two sets of clothing, one formal along the lines of what to wear to a job interview and one set they would normally wear to a lecture.
The students then filled out questionnaires wearing either formal or casual clothes. The more formally dressed showed, through the questionnaires, that they had better abstract thought.
The researchers believe the key may be that those wearing formal clothes are more socially distant but it is unclear how this promotes more abstract thinking. One theory is that a sense of looking good promotes a feeling of well-being and delivers a subsequent improvement in thinking power.
The researchers think there’s more work to be done in this area, including how wearing formal clothes might influence decision making.
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