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The Brain-Focusing Power of the Lab Coat

• February 28, 2012 • 9:00 AM

Need to pay close attention to a tricky task? Try slipping on a simple white lab coat.

Schoolchildren grappling with a tough assignment are encouraged to “put your thinking cap on.” But parents and teachers offering this advice may be focusing on the wrong garment.

Perhaps students should instead slip into their thinking jackets.

That’s the implication of a newly published study, which found wearing a white lab coat — a piece of clothing associated with care and attentiveness — improved performance on tests requiring close and sustained attention. Importantly, the effect was not found when the garment in question was identified as a visual artist’s coat.

“The clothes we wear have power not only over others, but also over ourselves,” Northwestern University scholars Hajo Adam and Adam Galinsky write in the Journal of Experimental Social Psychology. While much research has looked at how our wardrobe influences the way we’re perceived, their study examines its impact on our own thinking and behavior.

Adam and Galinsky call this internal dynamic “enclothed cognition.” That’s a play off the term “embodied cognition,” a line of research that examines the ways bodily sensations influence our thoughts and emotions. For instance, a 2010 study found assuming a body position connoting power leads people to feel and act more confident, even raising testosterone levels.

Could wearing items of clothing that have specific symbolic meaning have a similar effect? To test their thesis, the researchers chose a lab coat, since it is “the prototypical attire of scientists and doctors. Wearing a lab coat thus signifies a scientific focus (and conveys) the importance of paying attention to the task at hand and not making errors.”

The first of their series of three experiments featured 58 undergraduates, half of whom wore a disposable white lab coat. (Participants were told their predecessors had worn these jackets during an earlier round of the study to protect their clothing from construction-related dust. They were asked to put on the garments so that everyone took the test under identical conditions.)

Selective attention was measured by a Stroop task, the classic test in which participants are instructed to name the color of a word flashed on a computer screen, while ignoring the word itself.

Twenty of the 50 words were presented in incongruent colors, such as the word “red” spelled out in green letters. On those confusing items, people wearing the lab coats made around half as many errors as their peers.

But a white coat can mean different things to different people. To address that issue, the researchers conducted an experiment featuring 99 students. One-third were asked to wear what was identified as a medical doctor’s coat, while another third wore an identical jacket that was described as the sort of attire worn by a visual artist while he or she is painting.

The others wore their normal clothing, but a coat described as the sort M.D.s wear was displayed on a desk in front of them. As the experiment began, they were asked to write a short essay about the specific, personal meaning such a coat has for them.

All were then asked to complete four visual-search tests that featured two nearly identical pictures placed side by side. There were four minor differences between the two images; participants were instructed to find the discrepancies and write them down as quickly as possible.

Those told they were wearing a doctor’s coat found more differences than those told they were wearing a painter’s coat. Since they all took about the same amount of time to finish the test, the researchers attributed their higher scores to “heightened attention” rather than simple persistence.

So wearing the simple garment focused their minds, but only when it was associated with medicine rather than artistic expression. Those who had looked at and thought about the doctor’s coat, but didn’t actually wear one, scored in between the other two groups.

“The main conclusion that we can draw from the studies is that the influence of wearing a piece of clothing depends on both its symbolic meaning and the physical experience of wearing the clothes,” Adam and Galinsky write. “There seems to be something special about the physical experience of wearing a piece of clothing.”

These results open up all sorts of interesting possibilities, as the researchers note. “Does wearing the robe of a priest or judge make people more ethical?” they ask. “Does putting on the uniform of a firefighter make people act more courageously? And perhaps even more interestingly, do the effects of physically wearing a particular form of clothing wear off over time, as people become habituated to it?”

We can add another question to that list. The researchers note that wearing a “painter’s coat” led to relatively low scores on these tests. But could that particular fashion statement enhance creativity? It’s certainly worth studying.

It all brings to mind the end of The Wizard of Oz, in which symbolic possessions (the Cowardly Lion’s medal, the Scarecrow’s diploma) allow the characters to access previously hidden parts of their personalities. Perhaps that dynamic works in our world as well.

It’s an idea worth trying on to see if it fits.

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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.

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