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Do the Clothes Make the Man (or Woman)?

Lab coat with stethoscope

Written by: Dr. Helene Pavlov, Radiologist-in-Chief

(This post first appeared on The Huffington Post)

In a recent New York Times article titled, “Mind Games: Sometimes a White Coat Isn’t Just a White Coat,” Adam D. Galinsky, a professor at the Kellogg School of Management at Northwestern University, describes “enclothed cognition.” Enclothed cognition is “the effects of clothing on cognitive processes.” He claims that we think not just with our brains but also with our bodies, and that the clothes one wears and the specific meaning attached to the clothes causes one to ascribe that meaning to their behavior.

The example Professor Galinsky references in his investigation is of the doctor’s white lab coat. According to the professor, a physician who wears his or her white lab coat and knows its symbolic meaning tends to be more careful, rigorous and good at paying attention. This theory was tested with a number of students and found that when the students wore a doctor’s white coat they had heightened attention, while the reverse was true for the individuals who wore a painter’s white coat.

Many health care workers wear a doctor’s white lab coat even though they are not physicians. When asked as to why, they uniformly respond that the coat garners respect from patients and colleagues and, therefore, gives them an edge to their job performance and interactions with patients. As per the study, it may also affect their behavior.

How we behave is clearly affected by the clothes we wear. When we dress up formally in a tuxedo or evening gown our behavior tends to be entirely different from that when we are wearing golf or tennis clothes. In those professions requiring uniforms, such as the military, police, fire department, etc., the importance of the effect of a uniform on behavior of both the wearer and the observer is well-recognized. The uniform embodies respect, and incorporated with that respect is specific, expected behavior from the person wearing the uniform. How a soldier behaves when wearing the uniform is carefully dictated and is different from that behavior allowed when the soldier is “out of uniform.”

The article in the Times piece asks an important question: How would our behavior change if we wore the clothes of varying professions? As a radiologist, I know that on occasion radiologists are not recognized to be physicians; perhaps this is because radiologists do not always “dress like physicians.” Even though we provide patient care and consult with our physician colleagues, many radiologists wear lab coats only at conferences. Since radiologists spend the majority of the day interpreting imaging studies while looking at a monitor in a restricted quiet area, dress tends to be casual. We often do not wear a white doctor’s coat because we are not in direct patient contact; dress has often been thought to be less important. If Professor Galinsky’s theory holds true, it is possible that radiologists’ attention might be heightened if white coats were mandated all the time.

Our world is made up of people with different personalities. America embraces diversity, resulting in a broad, bell-shaped curve of what is accepted as “normal.” This is especially evident living in New York City; people dress in various sorts of clothing states, from the haute couture to the causally-attired. Acceptance of how people dress allows for freedom of expression and also permits for the freedom to evaluate people by their choice of attire. It is important for individuals to realize that with regard to first impressions, we do judge the book by its cover. Dr. Galinsky’s theories may affect what a student should wear when scheduled to take an examination, or what a lawyer should wear when appearing in court. Nevertheless, this investigation does lend credibility to what was always thought to be just an old wives’ tale, i.e., maybe “the clothes do make the man (or the woman).”


Topics: Orthopedics
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