A new study looks specifically at how formal attire changes people’s thought processes. “Putting on formal clothes makes us feel powerful, and that changes the basic way we see the world,” says Abraham Rutchick, an author of the study and a professor of psychology at California State University, Northridge. Rutchick and his co-authors found that wearing clothing that’s more formal than usual makes people think more broadly and holistically, rather than narrowly and about fine-grained details. In psychological parlance, wearing a suit encourages people to use abstract processing more readily than concrete processing.
Research on the effects of clothing on cognition remains in its early stages. Another similar study showed that when subjects wore a white coat that they believed belonged to a doctor, they became more attentive, an effect that didn’t hold when they believed the garment was a painter’s. But clothing’s psychological effects have been specified for only a couple of the ways the brain makes sense of stimuli.
That said, at work, when some have to wear suits, there are some specific implications when attire flicks on abstract processing. “If you get a stinging piece of critical feedback at work, if you think about it with a concrete processing style, it’s more likely to negatively impact your self-esteem,” says Michael Slepian, another one of the paper’s authors and a professor of management at Columbia Business School. Slepian added that thinking about money with an abstract processing style might lead one to skip impulsive purchases in favor of smarter, long-term savings behaviors.
As casual attire becomes the norm in a growing number of workplaces, it would seem that the symbolic power of the suit will erode in coming years. Slepian thinks the opposite. “You could even predict the effect could get stronger if formal clothing is only reserved for the most formal of situations,” he says. “It takes a long time for symbols and our agreed interpretations of those symbols to change, and I wouldn’t expect the suit as a symbol of power to be leaving us anytime soon.” Meanwhile, no formal research exists—just anecdotal observations—on how the world appears different when wearing a black turtleneck and jeans.