Say Yes to the Right Dress

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How one's appearance enhances cognitive acumen and mood

I heard the alarm. My eyes blinked open in panic. I reached for my phone and saw 9:10 glaring at me, the numbers admonishing me for over sleeping. Time can be so judgmental. I extended my arm to the back of my closet, grabbed my brand new cobalt blue dress and fled. Though my rushed morning could have resulted in a rough day, it actually had the opposite impact. I was happier, more creative, and felt sharper than ever. I quickly realized the source of my cognitive prowess - I was wearing a new dress that made me feel elevated and beautiful.

It wasn't superstition to blame for the strong association between my clothing and positive feelings, but rather a phenomenon called enclothed cognition. It turns out what you wear really does affect the way you feel and behave. Researchers at Northwestern University's Kellogg School of Management recently conducted a study where they had two groups of participants don a long white lab coat. One group was told that the lab coat was from a doctor, while the other group was told it belonged to an artist. The group who believed they were wearing a doctor's lab coat demonstrated elevated levels of attentiveness, an integral trait for physicians. In contrast, subjects wearing a coat they associated with an artist showed more creativity.

In the same vein, when I wore a dress I associated with feelings of novelty and brightness, I embodied those feelings. And it's not just the wearer of clothing who feels these affects - it's also those we come into contact with us who perceive us differently by our appearance. Amy Cuddy, a professor and researcher at Harvard University, has investigated the ways body posture affects how others perceive us and how we judge ourselves. Before an important meeting or job interview, Dr. Cuddy recommends power posing for two minutes in the mirror - lifting your chin and elevating your chest. By adapting a dominant power stance for just those 120 seconds, participants show increases in testosterone, a hormone associated with dominance, and decreases in the stress hormone cortisol. It's a cyclical process: by projecting a powerful stance to the world, you're more inclined to be treated more powerfully, and as a result, continue to act more in charge and competent. In a sense, we are faking it until we make it. Dr. Cuddy says eventually, we fake it until we become it.

Our sartorial choices can also elicit negative qualities. In a study conducted by psychologists Francesca Gino, Michael Norton, and Dan Ariely, two groups of participants randomly chose sunglasses out of a box. The first box contained authentic designer sunglasses, whereas the second box was labeled "counterfeit." The subjects then completed math problems and had to report how many questions they answered correctly. The more they answered, the more money they were told they would receive. Those wearing the counterfeit sunglasses grossly inflated how many they really answered correctly. When wearing the fake sunglasses, people were more inclined to lie. Our clothing might be an outside representation of who we are, but it can also seep inside the delicate fabrics of our personality.

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