Menus Subscribe Search

Follow us


Findings

red-socks

(Photo: Halfpoint/Shutterstock)

Dressing for Success Sometimes Means Defying the Norm

• February 13, 2014 • 4:00 AM

(Photo: Halfpoint/Shutterstock)

New research suggests non-traditional sartorial choices can signal autonomy and a high level of status.

“Dress for success” is a familiar mantra of self-help books, particularly those focused on helping one succeed in the business world. To be accepted in certain social strata, you need to look like you belong there—or so the thinking goes.

In fact, dressing in a non-conformist manner can actually make you come across as more powerful and accomplished.

That’s the conclusion of a Harvard Business School research team. In the Journal of Consumer Research, Silvia Bellezza, Francesca Gino, and Anat Keinan write that deviating from the norm when it comes to self-presentation “can act as a particular form of conspicuous consumption, and lead to positive inferences of status and competence in the eyes of others.”

They argue that dressing in an unconventional way “signals that one has the autonomy needed to act according to one’s own inclinations.” The fact you can get away with ignoring the unwritten rules (like Dr. House refusing to wear a lab coat) implies you have a high level of power and/or ability.

“Observers confer greater status and competence to nonconformity compared to conformity because they believe that the nonconforming individual has the necessary level of autonomy to follow her own inclinations, and bear the cost of deviating from the norm.”

The researchers demonstrate this dynamic, which they call “The Red Sneakers Effect,” in a series of experiments.

The first featured 52 shop assistants in Milan, Italy, who worked in luxury-brand boutiques such as Armani, Burberry, and Christian Dior. They read one of two versions of a vignette about a 35-year-old woman who entered such a store.

Some were informed she wore a dress and fur coat; others were told she was in gym clothes. Another group learned she was wearing heeled sandals and an expensive watch; still others were told she was in flip-flops and wore a cheap watch.

All were then asked a series of questions about the customer and her likely purchasing behavior. They reported she was “more likely to make a purchase, and to be a celebrity, when she was wearing gym clothes or a Swatch than when she was wearing an elegant dress or a Rolex.”

A second experiment was conducted in the very different environment of Harvard University. The 159 participants (mostly students) read a vignette about a professor, after which they were asked how good he was at his job, and how respected he was by his students.

The academic was described as 45 years old. Half the participants were told he was clean shaven and wore a tie to work; the others received the information that he had a beard and typically lectured in a T-shirt. In addition, they were randomly informed that he was either at a generic university or a “top-tier” school.

“We find that students perceive an unshaven professor who wears a t-shirt to have higher professional status and competence,” the researchers write, “but only in a prestigious context”—that is, at the highly exclusive university. In such an environment, his dress would presumably stand out as non-conformist, signaling his prestige.

In still another experiment, 141 people recruited online read a vignette about Charles, an individual attending a formal black-tie party at his golf club. Half read that he was in a traditional black tie, while the others were told he wore a red bow tie. Half of those in the latter group were further informed that his unusual sartorial choice was based on ignorance of the rules rather than intent to deviate from the dress code.

All were then asked about Charles’ status and accomplishment. They were more likely to believe red-tie Charles was “one of the top members of the country club;” they also said he was more likely to have won past golf tournaments. However, these effects dissipated for those told his non-conformity was unintentional.

“Observers confer greater status and competence to nonconformity compared to conformity because they believe that the nonconforming individual has the necessary level of autonomy to follow her own inclinations, and bear the cost of deviating from the norm,” the researchers conclude.

So, if you want to be accepted as a member in good standing of some social group, by all means dress to blend in. But if you want to be viewed as a standout, you might emulate classical pianist Jean-Yves Thibaudet and put on a pair of red socks.

His penchant for dressing in a way that sets him apart visually on a concert-hall stage is hardly the sole factor responsible for his brilliant career. But this research suggests it sure didn’t hurt.

Tom Jacobs
Staff writer Tom Jacobs is a veteran journalist with more than 20 years experience at daily newspapers. He has served as a staff writer for The Los Angeles Daily News and the Santa Barbara News-Press. His work has also appeared in The Los Angeles Times, Chicago Tribune, and Ventura County Star.

More From Tom Jacobs

A weekly roundup of the best of Pacific Standard and PSmag.com, delivered straight to your inbox.

Recent Posts

December 20 • 10:28 AM

Flare-Ups

Are my emotions making me ill?


December 19 • 4:00 PM

How a Drug Policy Reform Organization Thinks of the Children

This valuable, newly updated resource for parents is based in the real world.


December 19 • 2:00 PM

Where Did the Ouija Board Come From?

It wasn’t just a toy.


December 19 • 12:00 PM

Social Scientists Can Do More to Eradicate Racial Oppression

Using our knowledge of social systems, all social scientists—black or white, race scholar or not—have an opportunity to challenge white privilege.


December 19 • 10:17 AM

How Scientists Contribute to Bad Science Reporting

By not taking university press officers and research press releases seriously, scientists are often complicit in the media falsehoods they so often deride.


December 19 • 10:00 AM

Pentecostalism in West Africa: A Boon or Barrier to Disease?

How has Ghana stayed Ebola-free despite being at high risk for infection? A look at their American-style Pentecostalism, a religion that threatens to do more harm than good.


December 19 • 8:00 AM

Don’t Text and Drive—Especially If You’re Old

A new study shows that texting while driving becomes even more dangerous with age.


December 19 • 6:12 AM

All That ‘Call of Duty’ With Your Friends Has Not Made You a More Violent Person

But all that solo Call of Duty has.


December 19 • 4:00 AM

Food for Thought: WIC Works

New research finds participation in the federal WIC program, which subsidizes healthy foods for young children, is linked with stronger cognitive development and higher test scores.


December 18 • 4:00 PM

How I Navigated Life as a Newly Sober Mom

Saying “no” to my kids was harder than saying “no” to alcohol. But for their sake and mine, I had to learn to put myself first sometimes.


December 18 • 2:00 PM

Women in Apocalyptic Fiction Shaving Their Armpits

Because our interest in realism apparently only goes so far.


December 18 • 12:00 PM

The Paradox of Choice, 10 Years Later

Paul Hiebert talks to psychologist Barry Schwartz about how modern trends—social media, FOMO, customer review sites—fit in with arguments he made a decade ago in his highly influential book, The Paradox of Choice: Why More Is Less.


December 18 • 10:00 AM

What It’s Like to Spend a Few Hours in the Church of Scientology

Wrestling with thetans, attempting to unlock a memory bank, and a personality test seemingly aimed at people with depression. This is Scientology’s “dissemination drill” for potential new members.


December 18 • 8:00 AM

Gendering #BlackLivesMatter: A Feminist Perspective

Black men are stereotyped as violent, while black women are rendered invisible. Here’s why the gendering of black lives matters.


December 18 • 7:06 AM

Apparently You Can Bring Your Religion to Work

New research says offices that encourage talk of religion actually make for happier workplaces.


December 18 • 6:00 AM

The Very Weak and Complicated Links Between Mental Illness and Gun Violence

Vanderbilt University’s Jonathan Metzl and Kenneth MacLeish address our anxieties and correct our assumptions.


December 18 • 4:00 AM

Should Movies Be Rated RD for Reckless Driving?

A new study finds a link between watching films featuring reckless driving and engaging in similar behavior years later.


December 17 • 4:00 PM

How to Run a Drug Dealing Network in Prison

People tend not to hear about the prison drug dealing operations that succeed. Substance.com asks a veteran of the game to explain his system.


December 17 • 2:00 PM

Gender Segregation of Toys Is on the Rise

Charting the use of “toys for boys” and “toys for girls” in American English.


December 17 • 12:41 PM

Why the College Football Playoff Is Terrible But Better Than Before

The sample size is still embarrassingly small, but at least there’s less room for the availability cascade.


December 17 • 11:06 AM

Canadian Kids Have a Serious Smoking Problem

Bootleg cigarette sales could be leading Canadian teens to more serious drugs, a recent study finds.


December 17 • 10:37 AM

A Public Lynching in Sproul Plaza

When photographs of lynching victims showed up on a hallowed site of democracy in action, a provocation was issued—but to whom, by whom, and why?


December 17 • 8:00 AM

What Was the Job?

This was the year the job broke, the year we accepted a re-interpretation of its fundamental bargain and bought in to the push to get us to all work for ourselves rather than each other.


December 17 • 6:00 AM

White Kids Will Be Kids

Even the “good” kids—bound for college, upwardly mobile—sometimes break the law. The difference? They don’t have much to fear. A professor of race and social movements reflects on her teenage years and faces some uncomfortable realities.



Follow us


Don’t Text and Drive—Especially If You’re Old

A new study shows that texting while driving becomes even more dangerous with age.

Apparently You Can Bring Your Religion to Work

New research says offices that encourage talk of religion actually make for happier workplaces.

Canadian Kids Have a Serious Smoking Problem

Bootleg cigarette sales could be leading Canadian teens to more serious drugs, a recent study finds.

The Hidden Psychology of the Home Ref

That old myth of home field bias isn’t a myth at all; it’s a statistical fact.

The Big One

One in two United States senators and two in five House members who left office between 1998 and 2004 became lobbyists. November/December 2014

Copyright © 2014 by Pacific Standard and The Miller-McCune Center for Research, Media, and Public Policy. All Rights Reserved.