Thursday, 21 February 2013

Enclothed Cognition

Yes, this post is about another study that some may argue only adds to the evidence for the weakest and most trivial version of embodied cognition (like the coffee cup experiment). However, some results of this nature aside from their intrigue, are thankfully not found formally published on the likes of but rather and in this case, the Journal of Experimental Social Psychology, thus it has my attention at least. In this  2012 study, Adam & Galinsky hypothesised  that wearing a piece of clothing and embodying its symbolic meaning would trigger associated psychological processes. It is well known and has been shown in the literature, the effects that people's clothes can have on the perceptions of others. For example, it was found that clients are more inclined to return to formally dressed therapists than to casually dressed therapists (Dacy & Brodsky, 1992) and high school students' clothing styles influence perceptions of academic prowess among peers and teachers (Behling & Williams, 1991). Also, in a 1996 experiment where participants were shown faceless images of a man in a bespoke suit and images of the same man in an 'off the rack' suit, they rated the man wearing the bespoke suit considerably higher on 4/5 dimensions (confidence, success, salary and flexibility) but not trustworthiness. So when the appropriate suit wearing occasion arises, we should all invest in well tailored ones so we can positively enhance the image we communicate to others!?! What is less well researched however, is the influence of the clothes that we wear have over ourselves. Although previous research has shown that a sports team wearing 'black' kits were more aggressive than the non-black wearing team (the referee even thought so), research into the effects of clothing on people's own perceptions and behavior is limited. 

Drawing from research on embodied cognition, Adam & Galinsky coin the term 'enclothed cognition' to describe the power of clothes on the wearer's psychological processes and behavioural tendencies. They argue that "actually wearing a piece of clothing and having the accompanying physical experiences (e.g., seeing it on one's body, feeling it on one's skin, etc.) will make it significantly more likely for the piece of clothing to influence the wearer's psychological processes, above and beyond basic material priming effects. That is, embodying the clothing's symbolic meaning is a critical element in our enclothed cognition perspective. The researchers hypothesised that wearing clothes causes individuals to 'embody' the clothing and its symbolic meaning. 

Although the researchers agree that both embodied cognition and enclothed cognition act in a similar way, they emphasise one particular distinction. "In embodied cognition, the link between a physical experience and its symbolic meaning is direct, as it is the physical experience itself that carries the symbolic meaning. In other words, the symbolic meaning is always automatically  embodied because it directly stems from the physical experience. In enclothed cognition, the link between a physical experience and its symbolic meaning is indirect, as it is the clothes that carry the symbolic meaning" That is, the symbolic meaning is not automatically embodied because it stems from the clothes—so it is not realized until one physically wears and thus embodies the clothes. In this study the researchers tested their 'enclothed cognition' hypothesis using white lab coats. This is because the wearing of a lab coat is usually associated with the attire of a scientist or a doctor and 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'. 

Results of this study indicated  that wearing a lab coat leads to increased selective attention on a Stroop task and showed that wearing a lab coat leads to increased sustained attention on a comparative visual search task. These observed effects depended on two factors: whether the clothes are worn and the symbolic meaning of the clothes. "Participants displayed greater sustained attention only when wearing a lab coat described as a doctor's coat, but not when wearing a lab coat described as a painter's coat or when seeing a lab coat described as a doctor's coat". Also, the researchers found that only identifying with a doctor's lab coat (priming effect) did in fact increase the level of sustained attention. However, when the participants wore a lab coat described as a doctor's lab coat, the effect observed was much stronger than if they were only exposed to and identified with a doctor's lab coat. 

Thus, the researchers have provided initial support for their 'enclothed cognition' hypothesis that "clothes can have profound and systematic psychological and behavioral consequences for their wearers". Research of this nature can only open up new directions within the growing body of embodied cognition research, especially seeing that embodied cognition has mainly focused (according to the researchers) on for example judgement of morality and the importance of power and so on. It will certainly be very interesting to see what future research brings to the table. In the mean time why not invest in a nice white lab coat so you can reap the rewards of improved attention etc. 


  1. It's nice to see there is evidence to support the idea of "enclothed cognition." Intuitively it makes sense, with the most obvious example probably being undergarments (ex. women buy and wear lingerie to boost their self confidence and feel sexy, regardless of whether or not they plan on showing it to anyone).

    My high school actually presented an interesting case of enclothed cognition. A strict dress code was enforced throughout the school year with one exception--finals week. Nevertheless many students continued to follow the dress code during exams because it "felt weird" to take an test dressed in sweatpants and t-shirts.

  2. Well the Nazis had the best uniforms didn't they? Case clothed.

    1. Yes, it is well documented that Hitler was very aware of the power of clothing and symbols, especially uniforms and the swastika motif. The well-tailored uniforms of the Third Reich obviously played an important role in the mobilization of the propaganda machine orchestrated by Goebbels! With the massive effect the Nazi uniforms had on others' perceptions of them being obvious (powerful, to be feared etc) , i'm sure for some of the Nazis, wearing the uniform and embodying its symbolic meaning triggered many associated psychological processes (although these psychological processes may have been different for many during/after the Nuremberg trials, due to guilt etc). Interestingly, in 2011 the German fashion firm Hugo Boss apologized for its maltreatment of forced workers during World War II when it supplied the Nazis with uniforms. Although what effect a tailored Hugo Boss doctor's lab coat would have had in the above experiment..... I don't know! Joking aside, I suppose this only emphasises the fact that integral to 'enclothed cognition' is (1) actually wearing a piece of clothing and (2) embodying its symbolic meaning. If Hugo Boss carried with it the negative image and symbolism of being associated with the Nazis, i'm sure they would either be defunct as a brand or would now only cater for the few who believe such symbolism is acceptable. Just goes to show the influence of symbolism/clothing can have on us.

  3. Having just watched the weekend's Six Nations rugby matches, I can certainly see the case for enclothed cognition in the jerseys of the national teams. The players often talk about the pride of wearing the jersey, and the match-day kits are often handed out to team members by someone important or inspirational to the national squads. I guess that fits the theory that in the moment a player pulls the jersey over his head, the symbolic effect of wearing it can influence behavioural outcome. Pity it didn't work the way Ireland wanted it to today though!