Menus Subscribe Search

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

July 29 • 11:23 AM

Where Should You Go to College?


July 29 • 10:29 AM

How Textbooks Have Changed the Face of War

War is more personal, less glorious, and more hellish in modern textbooks than in the past. But there’s still room for improvement.


July 29 • 10:00 AM

The Monolingual American: Why Are Those Outside of the U.S. Encouraging It?

If you are an American trying to learn German in a large German town or city, you will mostly hear English in return, even when you give sprechen your best shot.


July 29 • 8:00 AM

The Elusive Link Between Casinos and Crime

With a study of the impact of Philadelphia’s SugarHouse Casino, a heated debate gets fresh ammunition.


July 29 • 6:00 AM

What Are the Benefits of Locking Yourself in a Tank and Floating in Room-Temperature Saltwater?

After three sessions in an isolation tank, the answer’s still not quite clear.


July 29 • 4:00 AM

Harry Potter and the Battle Against Bigotry

Kids who identify with the hero of J.K. Rowling’s popular fantasy novels hold more open-minded attitudes toward immigrants and gays.


July 29 • 2:00 AM

Geographic Scale and Talent Migration: Washington, D.C.’s New Silver Line

Around the country, suburbs are fighting with the urban core over jobs and employees.


July 28 • 4:00 PM

Border Fences Make Unequal Neighbors and Enforce Social Inequality

What would it look like if you combined Israel, the West Bank, and Gaza, demographically speaking? What about the United States and Guatemala?


July 28 • 2:00 PM

Are Patient Privacy Laws Being Misused to Protect Medical Centers?

A 1996 law known as HIPAA has been cited to scold a mom taking a picture of her son in a hospital, to keep information away from police investigating a possible rape at a nursing home, and to threaten VA whistleblowers.


July 28 • 12:00 PM

Does Internet Addiction Excuse the Death of an Infant?

In Love Child, documentary filmmaker Valerie Veatch explores how virtual worlds encourage us to erase the boundary between digital and real, no matter the consequences.


July 28 • 11:11 AM

NASA Could Build Entire Spacecrafts in Space Using 3-D Printers

This year NASA will experiment with 3-D printing small objects in space. That could mark the beginning of a gravity-free manufacturing revolution.


July 28 • 10:00 AM

Hell Isn’t for Real

You may have seen pictures of the massive crater in Siberia. It unfortunately—or fortunately—does not lead to the netherworld.


July 28 • 8:00 AM

Why Isn’t Obama More Popular?

It takes a while for people to notice that things are going well, particularly when they’ve been bad for so long.


July 28 • 7:45 AM

The Most Popular Ways to Share Good and Bad Personal News

Researchers rank the popularity of all of the different methods we have for telling people about our lives, from Facebook to face-to-face.


July 28 • 6:00 AM

Hams Without Ends and Cats Tied to Trees: How We Create Traditions With Dubious Origins

Does it really matter if the reason for why you give money to newlyweds is based on a skewed version of a story your parents once told you?


July 28 • 4:00 AM

A Belief in ‘Oneness’ Is Equated With Pro-Environment Behavior

New research finds a link between concern for the environment and belief in the concept of universal interconnectedness.


July 25 • 4:00 PM

Flying Blind: The View From 30,000 Feet Puts Everything in Perspective

Next time you find yourself in an airplane, consider keeping your phone turned off and the window open.


July 25 • 2:00 PM

Trophy Scarves: Race, Gender, and the Woman-as-Prop Trope

Social inequality unapologetically laid bare.


July 25 • 1:51 PM

Confusing Population Change With Migration

A lot of population change is baked into a region from migration that happened decades ago.


July 25 • 1:37 PM

Do Not Tell Your Kids That Eating Vegetables Will Make Them Stronger

Instead, hand them over in silence. Or, market them as the most delicious snack known to mankind.



July 25 • 11:07 AM

The West’s Groundwater Is Being Sucked Dry

Scientists were stunned to discover just how much groundwater has been lost from beneath the Colorado River over the past 10 years.


July 25 • 10:00 AM

Shelf Help: New Book Reviews in 100 Words or Less

What you need to know about Bad Feminist, XL Love, and The Birth of Korean Cool.



July 25 • 8:00 AM

The Consequences of Curing Childhood Cancer

The majority of American children with cancer will be cured, but it may leave them unable to have children of their own. Should preserving fertility in cancer survivors be a research priority?


Follow us


Subscribe Now

How Textbooks Have Changed the Face of War

War is more personal, less glorious, and more hellish in modern textbooks than in the past. But there’s still room for improvement.

NASA Could Build Entire Spacecrafts in Space Using 3-D Printers

This year NASA will experiment with 3-D printing small objects in space. That could mark the beginning of a gravity-free manufacturing revolution.

The Most Popular Ways to Share Good and Bad Personal News

Researchers rank the popularity of all of the different methods we have for telling people about our lives, from Facebook to face-to-face.

Do Not Tell Your Kids That Eating Vegetables Will Make Them Stronger

Instead, hand them over in silence. Or, market them as the most delicious snack known to mankind.

The West’s Groundwater Is Being Sucked Dry

Scientists were stunned to discover just how much groundwater has been lost from beneath the Colorado River over the past 10 years.

The Big One

One in two full-time American fast-food workers' families are enrolled in public assistance programs, at a cost of $7 billion per year. July/August 2014

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