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There's a Super-Simple Trick to Getting Smarter

May 18, 2015

Trying to brainstorm the solution to a thorny problem or want to invent the next big thing? When you need the kind of thinking that takes you from worker bee to the corner office, look in your closet: A new study finds that being dressed formally improves people's ability to engage in abstract thinking.

"The formality of clothing might not only influence the way others perceive a person… and how people perceive themselves… but could influence decision making in important ways through its influence on processing style," the authors write.

There's already lots of evidence and advice out there about how what you wear impacts your attitude. People who work from home are told to ditch the sweats, and HR types view job applicants who are dressed up as opposed to dressed down more positively. But the authors of this study wanted to push it further and explore the question: Can what you wear change the way you think?

The answer, in a word, is yes. In a series of experiments, dressed-up subjects were more likely to think outside the box, make less-obvious correlations and think about topics more broadly than their dressed-down peers.

"By that we mean, basically, holistic or big-picture thinking — so not focusing on the details but seeing bigger ideas, seeing how things connect from a more high-level perspective," lead author Michael Slepian, research fellow and assistant adjunct professor at Columbia University's Business School, tells New York magazine.

For instance, subjects asked to describe an action like "locking the door" while wearing casual clothing were more likely to use concrete terms like "turning a key," while their dressed-up counterparts had a greater tendency to use more abstract terms like "securing the house." Dressing up makes people think more creatively.

"Wearing formal clothing was associated with describing actions in more meaningful ways, as well as more frequently perceiving meaningful relationships between objects and categories," the authors write. They say that people wearing more formal outfits have greater conceptual, perceptual and global coherence, three hallmarks of more abstract thought.

Here's how this works. Being dressed up is like any other formality in that it creates what social scientists call "social distance." We perceive an outfit like a suit and tie as less approachable than, say, jeans and a T-shirt. That sense of distance prompts people to view a question or task in front of them from a greater distance, too. The result is more broad-based, abstract thought.

Being more dressed-up than others around them can also make people feel more powerful, which also jump-starts a more big-picture, creative thought process. "When you’re in a position of power, you don’t have to focus on the details,” Slepian tells New York.

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