The white coat power

Investigators at Northwestern University set up a series of experiments in which subjects performed cognitive tasks that measured selective or sustained attention. The goal was to  determine what influence clothes have on the wearer’s psychological processes.

In one trial some subjects wore white coats and some didn’t; interestingly, those who did performed better by a factor of 2. In another experiment, all the subjects wore white coats but some were told they were wearing a doctor’s coat, while others were told they were wearing a painter’s coat.

In the first experiment, physically wearing a lab coat increased selective attention compared to not wearing a lab coat. In the other trials, wearing a lab coat described as a doctor’s coat increased sustained attention compared to wearing a lab coat described as a painter’s coat, and compared to simply seeing or even identifying with a lab coat described as a doctor’s coat. The doctor’s coat group scored significantly better. The results led the investigators to coin the term enclothed cognition, which depends on both the symbolic meaning and the physical experience of wearing the clothes.

Highlights from the study:

  • The experiments demonstrate that wearing a lab coat increases attention.
  • Attention did not increase when the coat was not worn or associated with a painter.
  • Attention only increased when the coat was a) worn and b) associated with a doctor.
  • The influence of clothes thus depends on wearing them and their symbolic meaning.