Maybe some of the violence on airplanes and in airports lately has less to do with the annoyance of flying and more to do with what people decided to wear that morning.
Shorts, flip-flops and ratty T-shirts — my parents’ generation wouldn’t have gone to the grocery store like that, let alone fly across the country. Those things don’t exactly scream that the wearers are
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adults intent on adult behavior. And yet casual clothing abounds at airports, restaurants, weddings, funerals and just about everywhere else these days.
Maybe United was onto something when it refused passage to girls wearing yoga pants.
Put suits and ties on people and see how many of them feel like getting spirited when Spirit Airlines cancels a flight.
I’m not talking about people getting dragged off overbooked airlines through no fault of their own. That sort of unprovoked violence belongs in a class of its own — or does it?
Would airlines treat people differently if they were dressed for success?
These are questions few people will contemplate, and that’s a shame. The answers are grounded in science.
A few years ago, Hajo Adam and Adam D. Galinsky of Northwestern University coined the term “enclothed cognition”. Their study, published in the Journal of Experimental Social Psychology in 2012, examined how people change their behaviors based on what they wear.
They found not only that the way people dress influences how others treat them, but that it influences the way they perform.
In one experiment, they recruited 58 undergraduate students for a series of cognitive tests. Some were randomly chosen to wear lab coats, while others wore whatever they put on that morning. Those with lab coats made only half as many errors as those without them.
The researchers also demonstrated that clothing has a subconscious symbolic meaning. The students associated the lab coats with doctors and scientists, and thus with a higher level of thinking and greater attention to detail. But in a separate experiment, they told some of the participants they were wearing a lab coat, while others were told it was a painter’s smock. The painters fared worse.
If we dress well, we think better of ourselves and we act better than we otherwise would. Others regard us better, as well. Fashion experts have been telling us this for years. It’s why you don’t show up for a job interview looking the way you apparently show up for a flight to Chicago.
As the study’s authors note, their experiments “suggest that the effects of wearing a piece of clothing cannot be reduced to the wearer simply feeling identified with the clothing. Instead, there seems to be something special about the physical experience of wearing a piece of clothing, and this experience constitutes a critical component of enclothed cognition.”
They also point to a number of previous studies, including ones that show “clients are more likely to return to formally dressed therapists than to casually dressed therapists” and “appropriately dressed customer service agents elicit stronger purchase intentions than inappropriately dressed ones.”
I doubt many of you would find these things surprising. Why, then, are we surprised that a culture that deems casual dress appropriate for just about any occasion is finding itself prone to bad behavior in public?
Now for a reality check. I realize that a quick trip to Men’s Wearhouse isn’t going to solve the world’s problems. Talk radio, caustic political websites, corruption in high places, a general devaluation of religion and a variety of other factors have coarsened society and fueled a sense of mistrust that leads many to treat strangers as inferiors. We have fashioned a society that outstrips the value of fashion.
I also realize nice clothes won’t make airlines change business models that test the depths of human indignities. In addition, most of you won’t abandon those comfy jeans for something more formal when you face hours in the sky, even though nice clothing is as affordable as casual wear.
But if you did, you might notice a difference in how others treat you and, even if you didn’t realize it, in the way you react to situations. And if we all did … well, it’s interesting to imagine.