want to look competent? wear expensive clothes.

It turns out that clothes have an amazing effect on how we're perceived by others, even at first glance.
male model in coat
Photo by Dami Adebayo

Mark Twain once said that clothes make the man which is why naked people have little to no power in society. Researchers at Princeton took him up on this idea and found that it was very much correct. If you want to be deemed a confident leader but don’t have the chance to talk confidently and often, your second-best bet is wearing well-tailored, expensive looking clothes to meetings. You don’t necessarily have to wear suits and high-end timepieces, or nightgowns and high heels. Your clothes just need to look upscale and well put together, and almost everything else seems to become irrelevant, even when adjusted for race.

Even in experiments in which subjects were shown pictures of people whose competence they were to rate for just 130 milliseconds, roughly the blink of an eye, and offered money to ignore clothes completely, those dressed in “richer” attire were always given disproportionately higher competence ratings. As the researchers put it, this is proof of a serious societal hurdle for poor but perfectly competent people in getting jobs, promotions, and raises since those who would hire them or help advance their careers inherently see them as less competent because of their clothes, no matter how much they deny it or may try to avoid to make such judgements.

When you combine this with other studies showing how we evaluate leadership potential and competence in our managers, leaders, and politicians, it shows that we very much tend to judge a book by its cover despite warning ourselves and each other not to, and some of those biases are subconscious, manifesting in quite literally the blink of an eye. We pick leaders because they look and sound like leaders and assume that they can do the job, then adjust our opinion as we see their actual performance. And that’s extremely dangerous as we can see by the plummeting ratings for elected officials around the world as they seem to do nothing but watch the planet burn and offer solutions in name only.

So, what can we do to counter these pervasive biases? The only possible way may be to borrow from a bad trait of many programmers, who are often said to assume their colleagues are incompetent unless they prove otherwise. Obviously, we shouldn’t sink to such misanthropic extremes, but we should demand hard proof of competence and start with the assumption that the person can do the job but has to actually demonstrate that capability before winning our trust. This way, brash, loud, fashionable blowhards with expensive tastes would have a much harder time rising to the top while shyer, quieter, far less fashion-forward experts with older attire have a better chance advance in their place.

See: DongWon Oh, Eldar Shafir, Alexander Todorov, (2019) Economic status cues from clothes affect perceived competence from faces, Nature Human Behaviour, DOI: 10.1038/s41562-019-0782-4

# science // scientific research / social psychology / social science


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