Researchers Find Our Clothes Really Affect How Competent We Seem

mbg Editorial Assistant By Eliza Sullivan
mbg Editorial Assistant
Eliza Sullivan is an Editorial Assistant at mindbodygreen. She has bachelor's degrees in journalism and english literature from Boston University.
People Judge Competence In A Tenth Of A Second Based On Your Clothes

Image by Tatjana Zlatkovic / Stocksy

At some point, we've probably all been told to "dress for success." But researchers at Princeton University have found that our clothes affect how we're judged as soon as we're spotted, supporting the belief that how we dress can actually have some weight.

What did the researchers find?

Researchers at Princeton University's Woodrow Wilson School of Public and International Affairs found that people shown wearing "richer" clothing were expected to be more competent than those shown in other attire. 

The researchers used a series of tests with separate groups and images to establish which clothes were considered more or less rich, and then to see how the competence of the person shown wearing the clothing was ranked. They found that "The same face when seen with 'richer' clothes was judged significantly more competent than with 'poorer' clothes," according to the study's abstract.

Just as importantly, no matter how long people saw the image, they still rated people wearing richer clothing as more competent, suggesting that the judgment is made immediately. In real-world applications, this means our competence may be at least partially evaluated before we even begin to speak.

Later tests repeated similar strategies with slightly different variables. They tested things like removing suits and ties in favor of more casual clothing, or they explicitly told the participants that clothing and competence were not related before asking them to make their judgments. In these tests, the results remained the same.

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Why does it matter?

The researchers pointed to how quickly the judgment of competence was made and drew attention to the fact that the clothing seemed to outrank a person's actual face in assessing competence.

"We found that such disrespect—clearly unfounded, since in these studies the identical face was seen as less competent when it appeared with poorer clothing—can have its beginnings in the first tenth of a second of an encounter," said study co-author Eldar Shafir, Ph.D., a professor at Princeton.

The snap judgment gives a whole new level of credibility to how important first impressions are in any case, but it's more important than just being aware of our own appearance going into an important meeting or event: It also indicates an implicit bias in our views of others.

"To overcome a bias, one needs to not only be aware of it, but to have the time, attentional resources, and motivation to counteract the bias," the researchers wrote.

What's next for research?

Further research will need to investigate possible ways to help get past or avoid these sorts of immediate first impressions. The researchers offer one line of solutions.

"Knowing about a bias is often a good first step," said Shafir. "A potential, even if highly insufficient, interim solution may be to avoid exposure whenever possible. Just like teachers sometimes grade blindly so as to avoid favoring some students, interviewers and employers may want to take what measures they can, when they can, to evaluate people, say, on paper so as to circumvent indefensible yet hard to avoid competency judgments."

Acknowledging our biases is an important part of personal growth, and this research gives another important area of social bias to consider in our day-to-day routines. If you're worried about how you're perceived, try these techniques for boosting confidence and, um, maybe skip wearing red (it's a real thing).

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