The Science Behind Formal Work Attire & Your Success

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The Science Behind Formal Work Attire & Your Success

By Katie Litwin | December 17, 2019

Business-formal, business-professional, business-casual and dress-down, the debate on professional attire is one discussed at every level within a company. What’s appropriate, what’s not and where there is leeway is often a point of disagreement with many feeling that there should be more flexibility in the dress code.

The expressions, “when you look good, you feel good” and “dress for success” may seem over-used, but what if there is scientific evidence to back up these sayings? What if you knew something as little as the shirt you slipped on in the morning actually led to achieving greater success at work – would you reconsider that graphic tee? Is there a real correlation between the way you’re dressed and having the ability to think more strategically at work?

Several academic institutions have explored this question, most notably Columbia University in 2016 lead by Michael Slepain. Researchers devised a multi-pronged study to test the impact more formal dress-wear played on cognitive processes – focusing on individuals’ abstract processing against certain variables.

The Idea of Abstract Processing

The idea of abstract processing is defined as one’s ability to see the “bigger picture.” More formally, it consists of “superordinate, holistic and broad mental representations” versus “concrete processing,” which is more narrow, focused and task-oriented. Both styles largely influence the way we make decisions on a day-to-day basis. Using concrete and abstract processing as the two poles, Slepian et al. were able to measure how dress wear impacted variables such as action identification, category inclusiveness, global processing and conceptual coherence correlated with either style of processing.[1]

They discovered that in every instance wearing more formal clothing was associated with greater abstract processing. I reached out to one of the lead authors on the paper, Dr. Abraham Rutchick, a Professor of Psychology, who explained what this actually means.

Dr. Rutchick explained, “When we’re dressed formally (versus casually), we think more abstractly (10,000-foot view, big ideas, distant-future-oriented, broad principles, why-thinking), in contrast to thinking concretely (necessary logistics, present and near-future oriented, narrow details, how-thinking).”

As compared to concrete processing, abstract processing is related to individuals’ preference for larger future gains as opposed to smaller immediate gains, while concrete processing may be beneficial in completing short-term tasks or assignments. When considering what mindset is needed to facilitate company growth and long-term success, promoting abstract processing is arguably more favorable in my opinion.

This future-look mentality is beneficial across many sectors. In sales, this could mean the ability to see past one deal to see the larger gains of a long-term relationship with a client. While in biotech this could look like strategically working with investors and partners to determine the best way to go-to-market with your company’s new product. Immediate gains may be hard to measure, however, there is more value to be had in what comes later on.

Circling back to the Columbia University study, when Slepian et al. investigated whether participants felt there is a relationship between power and formal dressing, the subliminal cognitive response was feeling greater power. This was demonstrated by factors of decreased social closeness, decreased dependency, and again, abstract processing. These effects remained true even when controlling for sociometric status and the task assigned. Power, in this study, is defined as “having control over resources others do not.” This leads to greater independence and less reliance on others for those resources.[2]

While Dr. Rutchick said this might not be advisable when trying to build intimacy with others, in a workplace environment where professional attire is enforced, the employer may enable employees to exhibit more confidence in their actions and a greater sense of autonomy in work tasks.

Along with the Columbia findings is a separate study led by Galinsky out of Northwestern in 2012. This study looked specifically at the cognitive response participants had to wearing a doctor’s coat while completing various tests. The results gave credibility to the idea of “embodied cognition,” the concept that there is continuity in our thought processes between our brains and bodies. In three separate cognitive tests that measured factors such as sustained attention and heightened attention, participants who wore a doctor’s coat showed significantly improved attention versus those who wore a painter’s coat and those who were only shown a doctor’s coat prior to the test.

As Galinsky said, “Clothes invade the body and brain, putting the wearer into a different psychological state.”[3]

The point here is that when you dress like a professional, you truly internalize the characteristics of acting like a professional. Enforcing business attire can only serve to encourage employees to be their best professional selves and maximize their opportunities for success.

So, while I don’t believe the occasional incentive-based casual Friday should be discouraged (and certainly there’s an argument for dressing for the job you want), enforcing a business-formal or business-casual dress code clearly has tangible benefits to an organization’s bottom line.

Whether you’re going for an interview, determining what dress code to enforce in your business or just figuring out what to wear in the morning – don’t forget to dress to impress – you never know what it might lead to!

read more: 8 ways to advance your personal branding at work 


[1] Slepian, M. L., Ferber, S. N., Gold, J. M., & Rutchick, A. M. (2015). The Cognitive Consequences of Formal Clothing. Social Psychological and Personality Science. doi: 10.1177/1948550615579462

[2] Slepian, M. L., Ferber, S. N., Gold, J. M., & Rutchick, A. M. (2015). The Cognitive Consequences of Formal Clothing. Social Psychological and Personality Science. doi: 10.1177/1948550615579462

[3] Blakeslee, Sandra. “Mind Games: Sometimes A White Coat Isn’t Just A White Coat.” The New York Times, The New York Times, 2 Apr. 2012,


About the Author
Katie Litwin

Katie Litwin is an Associate Vice President within Life Sciences in New York, specializing in working with professionals in Regulatory Affairs who are driving the next era of drug development.

Her network is made up of individuals who work on innovative approaches to the world’s most pressing diseases to deliver therapies and cures to patients everywhere.

Katie’s ability to identify the highly-specialized backgrounds required for a career in Regulatory Affairs have translated to an impressive track record of placing senior-level executives in this field.

What makes GQR’s Life Sciences team stand out the most is their sincere passion for science in each company they are involved in working with. The team’s ability to build long-term relationships with experts in the space have made them genuinely knowledgeable about where the best talent is located.

Katie is a dual citizen to the U.S. and Canada. Outside of work, she is passionate about traveling, outdoors and trying new restaurant and recipes!

Connect with Katie to speak about your dream career or where you’d like to take your team next!


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