Wearing A White Lab Coat Helps You Perform On Tests

Students are always being told to put on their thinking caps – but perhaps they should be advised to put on a lab coat instead. Researchers say putting on the white coat normally associated with doctors and scientists helps you concentrate on your work and make fewer errors.

The researchers at Northwestern University say that people associate the clothing with care and attentiveness, and therefore show ‘heightened attention’ to tasks when attired accordingly. So this tip might help you be more successful in your day job – although what your boss may think of it is a different matter.

The researchers examined 58 undergraduates over a series of tests, half of whom wore a disposable white lab coat. Participants were told their predecessors had worn these jackets during an earlier round of the study to protect their clothing from construction-related dust.

They were asked to put on the garments so that everyone took the test under identical conditions.

Selective attention was measured by a classic test in which participants are instructed to name the colour of a word flashed on a computer screen, while ignoring the word itself.

Twenty of the 50 words were presented in incongruent colours, such as the word ‘red’ spelled out in green letters. On those confusing items, people wearing the lab coats made around half as many errors as their peers. Adam Galinsky, one of the researchers, said: ‘The clothes we wear have power not only over others, but also over ourselves.’ But a white coat can mean different things to different people, especially when considered on a global scale. To address that issue, the researchers, who have published their results in the latest edition of Experimental Social Pyschology, conducted an experiment featuring 99 students.

One-third were asked to wear what was identified as a medical doctor’s coat, while another third wore an identical jacket that was described as a painter’s coat. The others wore their normal clothing. The undergraduates were then asked to complete four visual-search tests that featured two nearly identical pictures placed side by side.

There were four minor differences between the two images; participants were instructed to find the discrepancies and write them down as quickly as possible. Those told they were wearing a doctor’s coat found more differences than those told they were wearing a painter’s coat. Since they all took about the same amount of time to finish the test, the researchers attributed their higher scores to ‘heightened attention’ rather than simple persistence.

The researchers concluded that wearing the white lab coat focused their minds, but only when it was associated with medicine rather than artistic expression. Adam Galinsky said: ‘The main conclusion that we can draw from the studies is that the influence of wearing a piece of clothing depends on both its symbolic meaning and the physical experience of wearing the clothes. There seems to be something special about the physical experience of wearing a piece of clothing.’



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