19 April 2013

How Clothes and Uniforms Influence our Judgment and Behavior

One of many typical games children play is dress up. They pick some clothes, many of which belong to the parents, and play different roles. Probably doctor and fireman are the most common choices. However, dress up is not reserved only for children; grownups do it too, but usually are unaware. Each time we go to a black tie party we dress up; each time we put on the work around the house clothes we dress up. The clothes we wear influence how we think and how we behave. The same person who in one instance is dressed up for a black tie party will behave significantly different when she is dressed in the work around the house clothes. In order to better understand how the clothes we wear influence our judgment and behavior, let’s talk about a particular type of clothing, namely uniforms.

Uniforms are something that we encounter several times each day and they are very diverse. However, when we think about uniforms the first thing that comes into mind is not the McDonalds or KLM uniforms, but rather it is the Police, Military or School uniforms. This is easily explicable because long before corporations started using uniforms they were used by state organizations such as the Military. The use of uniforms has several implications that will be briefly presented in the following paragraphs.

The first implication of uniforms is identification. Imagine a very bloody and heated battle between two tribes. In the heat of the battle it would be possible for members of the same tribe to harm or even kill each-other because they confused the other for an enemy. This is highly plausible. Nowadays this is called friendly fire that is a nice term for we killed our own.  In order to avoid the possibility of two warriors from the same tribe to slaughter each other, identification features were introduced. These evolved into military uniforms. The primordial role of uniforms is for the individual to be identified as a member of a certain group.

The second implication of uniforms is to enhance the feeling of belonging to a certain group. Whereas the primary role was to identify another individual as a member of a group, the second implication refers to the individual’s feeling of belonging to the group. When dressed up in, let’s say, a military uniform the individual has an increased sense of belonging to the group, in this case the army.

There is a limitation to increasing the sense of belonging through the use of uniforms, namely that in order to enhance the sense of membership, the group must have a well-defined identity. In the case of the army this is not an issue since the institution has a very well defined identity. However, if at a new organization uniforms are introduced, they will not help much in increasing the sense of belonging if the organization has a weak identity. In simpler words, in order to increase an individual’s feeling of membership, first there must be something to belong to.

The third implication of uniforms is that they create anonymity. Once in a uniform the individual is less himself and more of just another member of a group. In the case of the army things are quite straight forward. The new recruit Hans is not any more the young man who lived in a quiet peaceful town with his working class parents. He is now a soldier; he is now just another soldier in the army. In other cases anonymity is slightly smaller than in the case of the army, but still exists. For example most shoppers in an Albert Heijn supermarket notice mainly the uniforms of the employees and significantly less the individuals who are wearing them.

The sense of anonymity leads to increased aggression. For example warriors who wear masks are more brutal than similar warriors who do not use masks. A much closer example of increased aggression due to anonymity is in the on-line environment. Behind nicknames or avatars a lot of people are brave, rude and aggressive. However, the same people would behave like pussy-cats when they are stripped of their disguises. The increased aggression of individuals who perceive themselves as anonymous is attributed to a lack of accountability. This implies that organizations that use uniforms should make sure that their members are aware of their accountability for their acts.

The fourth and, in my view, the most important implication of uniforms is that they induce prototypical judgment. In an earlier post on priming you have learned that exposure to a certain piece of information makes a mental construct more salient in the mind, thus influencing subsequent judgment and behavior. You have also learned that asking people to think like a trader influences judgment. Simply put, when we ask somebody to think like a prototypical character we are asking them to put themselves in the shoes of the character.

In the case of uniforms things go even further. By dressing up an individual in a uniform that is prototypical for a category, the person is in the shoes of the prototype.  For example dressing a regular person in a military uniform will make that person act in a more militaristic way. Similarly if someone would dress up in a doctor’s uniform she would speak using more medical terms and overall would behave more like she thinks and knows a doctor behaves.

The process behind these changes is the following. We have stored in our minds prototypes and their specific behaviors. When dressed as a prototypical character, say police people, all the mental constructs related to the police are salient in the mind. Moreover, the person is now like the prototype of a police person. Subsequently the individual will exhibit behavior specific for the prototypical character.

This post began with a discussion about clothes and how they make us think and behave differently. Uniforms are the best illustration of this phenomenon, but by far most people are not using uniforms. However, most people have different types of clothes. We have office clothes, pajamas, work around the house clothes, party outfits and so on. Each of these types of clothes is associated with a specific context and when we wear them information related to the context becomes salient in our minds. This in turn influences how we think and how we behave. Usually we use clothes that are appropriate for each specific situation. For example we don’t go to business receptions dressed in pajamas and we don’t vacuum the house in our party outfits. However, there are a few instances when we might not bother to change into more appropriate clothes. I’ll illustrate this with an example soon, but before that, there is another effect of clothes that should be mentioned.

In an earlier post you have learned that the furniture we use influences our body posture which in turn influences judgment and behavior. Clothes have a similar effect, especially when it comes to the position of shoulders. The shape and the cut of a shirt, coat or T-shirt influences the position of one’s shoulders. Some cuts favor an up-right position, while other cuts favor a round-shouldered position. This might not seem much, but the two shoulder positions are specific for very different internal states. The up-right is associated with increased confidence, while the round-shouldered is specific for very low confidence.

I would like to conclude this chapter with an anecdotic example from my own experience. When my wife finished her Master program she had to give a presentation on her thesis. Since it was something very important, at least at the time, she practiced a lot. At one point she decided that it is time to have some rehearsals in front of an audience and the audience was me. She asked me to help her in any way I can. I said that I would like to see the full presentation once and after I will give her some tips. So we placed the beamer on the table, the laptop next to it, Cornelia, my wife, was standing  next to them and I was sitting on the couch. She began the presentation and not before long some stuttering occurred.

I knew how much she had prepared and I was a bit surprised by these mishaps. Moreover, I was surprised by the lack of confidence she had while giving the presentation. This was not justified by anything since the thesis was good and she had worked on it for many months. Then I realized that both Cornelia and I were still wearing our staying in the house clothes. As you can imagine the clothes were quite loose and comfortable, maybe too comfortable. I noticed especially how her comfortable blouse was making her shoulders to not be up-right.

Realizing all these, I asked Cornelia to go and change into the clothes she plans to use for the actual presentation. She did so and in addition put on her elegant shoes. She started again the rehearsal and this time it went very well and very smooth. There were only a few fine tunings to be done and after three rehearsals everything was close to perfect. The actual presentation went very well, too.

No comments: