Want to feel smarter?

English: Dr. Rachid Yazami in the battery lab....According to Katrina Onstad you should put on a lab coat. Here is what Katrina suggested.

I work from home and, as I type, am wearing a red silk vampire cape, a beret carved out of a watermelon and Uggs. Just kidding – I would never wear Uggs.

My point is that just because I work at home doesn’t mean I’m dressed like a hung-over 16-year-old at 11:30 a.m. on Sunday. Judging by websites like Iworkinmypajamas.com, many blogging telecommuters appear to embrace the working-in-pyjamas “dream” (yes, for some this is referred to as a “dream,” which might give Martin Luther King pause). More intelligent sartorial advice to those outside the traditional workplace can be found online, too; see the blog Lazy Man and Money and a post entitled “Work From Home? 8 Ways to Keep Focused.” Along with “Eat breakfast” and “Organize tasks” comes this sage wisdom: “Wear pants.” Words to live by on any day, but Lazy Man takes a specifically anti-pyjamas stance: “For some reason, I subconsciously associate pyjamas with ‘Time to check out stats in my fantasy baseball league.’”

Lazy Man is on to something. A new study published in the Journal of Experimental Social Psychology suggests that wearing certain clothes may actually alter your cognitive skills. Northwestern University scholars Hajo Adam and Adam Galinsky call this phenomenon “enclothed cognition.” The phrase is a riff on “embodied cognition,” a psychological model that suggests we think with our bodies as well as our brains – for example, children can better solve math problems if they move their hands. Take that, Descartes: Mind and body aren’t so separate after all.

At Northwestern, the researchers had 58 students perform a task requiring critical thinking (the Stroop test, which they employed, involves naming the colour of a word on a computer screen while ignoring the differing colour that the word has been set in). Half of the subjects wore regular clothes and half wore a white lab coat, signifier of all things brainy (think Frederick Banting tackling insulin rather than Beaker from The Muppet Show). Those in the lab coats made about half as many errors answering the trickier questions as those without. Adam and Galinsky write: “The clothes we wear have power not only over others, but also over ourselves.”

In another test, subjects wearing medical coats scored higher on a test than those told they had donned artsy painting smocks, although the white jackets both groups were wearing were identical. Researchers deduced that, for clothes to affect cognition, they must meet two criteria: The garments require symbolic meaning, and they have to be worn. The mere presence of a lab coat sitting nearby didn’t help plainclothes subjects score higher. Note to telecommuters: Having your power suit crumpled in a ball on the floor won’t have the same effect as putting it on.

That clothes must touch the body to transform the wearer is a romantic, mythical idea, as if we are all potential shape shifters – secret werewolves in business casual.

But there’s little science to suggest that dressing up improves workplace productivity. Some studies show that allowing casual dress at work improves morale while others suggest that dressing aspirationally, for the job you want, creates a more professional office.

Years ago, I was a temp on Bay Street in Toronto. Every morning, I put on a skirt and jacket, cramming my Doc Marten feet into heels. While I saw a few of my fellow temps blossoming in their post-collegiate first-job outfits, the symbolism of the temp attire was negative to me and I often felt locked, button-by-button, into a life that didn’t fit. But other days, the uniform sustained me somehow: If I could look like someone who was answering phones at a mutual fund company, I might become decent at it. Clothes can be a piece of theatre, and some outfits allow the actor to get lost in the role.

It is harder to recognize that role when you work at home, surrounded by books, not colleagues. My rules: No pyjamas, clean jeans and something that’s not shameful if I’m forced to open the door.

In the Northwestern paper, the authors ask: “Does wearing the robe of a priest or judge make people more ethical? Does putting on the uniform of a firefighter make people act more courageously?” Clearly, I need to purchase a beret if this writing thing is going to stick.

Then again, there’s one more intriguing question in the paper’s conclusion: “... do the effects of physically wearing a particular form of clothing wear off over time, as people become habituated to it?”
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