Menus Subscribe Search

Follow us


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.

Sign up for the free Miller-McCune.com e-newsletter.

“Like” Miller-McCune on Facebook.

Follow Miller-McCune on Twitter.

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 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.



December 16 • 4:00 PM

How Fear of Occupy Wall Street Undermined the Red Cross’ Sandy Relief Effort

Red Cross responders say there was a ban on working with the widely praised Occupy Sandy relief group because it was seen as politically unpalatable.


December 16 • 3:30 PM

Murder! Mayhem! And That’s Just the Cartoons!

New research suggests deaths are common features of animated features aimed at children.


December 16 • 1:43 PM

In Tragedy, Empathy Still Dependent on Proximity

In spite of an increasingly connected world, in the face of adversity, a personal touch is most effective.


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.