Friday, May 25, 2012

The clothes make the scientist

  I recently got a lab coat as a gift, and I of course was thrilled. The white coat is a symbol of science and the go-to prop to indicate a person’s intelligence and profession. But in graduate school, I never wore a white coat, even to do lab work. That may not have been smart, but no one else in the department consistently wore one either. My post-doc department is the same, so when I started proudly wearing mine I got noticed. The white coat, with my name stitched on it, indicated my status as a real life scientist.
Please note that there’s a bit of sarcasm associated with that phrase; I don’t need a white coat to validate to myself that I’m a scientist. But it’s others’ perceptions of that white coat that’s interesting.
  The perceived status of a person in a white coat, whether or not they believe it, is a real phenomenon, and wearing a white coat can even increase your abilities. A recent article (Blakeslee 2012) detailed an experiment (Adam and Galinsky 2012) where participants wore a white coat that they were told belonged to either a doctor or painter. Those wearing a ‘doctor’s’ coat increased their perception skills and attentiveness to detail. It wasn’t enough just to see the white coat – you had to wear it as well. So not only does wearing a white coat increase people’s estimation of you, it increases your own abilities as well! Our associations with a white coat are so strong that we take on the traits we assign to that profession. One hopes that the white coat isn’t doing all the work…This effect has yet to be tested beyond white coats, but it’s conceivable that other status items could confer other cognitive benefits though 'embodied cognition' (the article references this definition).
  A couple of other facts mentioned in the NYT article caught my eye. If women dress more ‘masculine’ for an interview, they’re more likely to be hired. If you’re a teaching assistant (and probably a professor as well), dressing up makes students perceive you as more intelligent that if you’re casually dressed. Inherently I must have known that, since I always made a point to dress in business casual on the first days of teaching, before returning to jeans and t-shirts.
  Why talk about clothes? I personally like to think that talents and smarts will get you the job/respect, but sometimes you’ve just got to play the part. As sad as it sounds, I’ll wear something that starts to counteract the biases of women in sciences and math. In doing so, you may get a small intelligence boost, and no matter what, you’ll look awesome in that white coat

Literature Cited
Adam, H. and A. D. Galinsky (2012). "Enclothed cognition." Journal of Experimental Social Psychology.
Blakeslee, S. (April 2, 2012). Mind Games: Sometimes a White Coat Isn’t Just aWhite Coat. The New York Times. New York.

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