How the Clothes You Wear Help You Focus

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When you have a busy day ahead of you, your outfit choice might be the last thing on your mind. Think back to when you were a student: What did it matter if you’re wearing a tattered old hoodie over sweatpants and sneakers if you couldn’t spit out formulas for that make-or-break quiz? If anything, at least you were comfortable.

And yet in a recent piece for Nautilus, writer Cody Delistraty reviews research that indicates your choice of outfit might have a direct correlation to how you think — and therefore, perform — on an exam. In a 2015 study in the journal Social Psychological and Personality Science, researchers conducted five experiments on 60 American undergraduates testing whether — and if so, how — what you wore translated to what you scored. The students ranked how much better or worse they were dressed compared to the average person, then answered a ten-question, non-academic survey that had two answers: one abstract, the other concrete. (The example here was “Voting was best described as:” followed by either the abstract “influencing the election” or the more concrete “marking a ballot.” No answers were more correct than others, but the abstract answer was much more “big picture” while the concrete version was more direct and conceptual.)

The results were surprising. Students who suited up were more likely to choose abstract options; on the other end of the spectrum, students wearing more casual clothes — the very popular sweatpants, T-shirt, and slip-on footwear on many college campuses —were more likely to choose the concrete options. In a classroom setting, suits might translate to better performance in classes that require creative thinking — think philosophy, literature, the arts. The casual look, on the other hand, might do wonders for math, science, and engineering coursework.

But most importantly, the way you dress might help you focus — or not. If you’re dealing with complicated formulae and figuring out the physics of falling objects, you’ve got better things to do than get distracted by your awkward pocket square and how your pencil skirt seems to be choking your knees. And while the reasons for formal clothes lending themselves to creativity aren’t clear, uniforms — which tend to be more formal in nature — tend to reduce comparison to others and level the playing field. You’re all dressed well; your merit is the only thing that will highlight your strengths or weaknesses.

A few notes: This is a correlation; causality hasn’t been shown. And if you didn’t study up for a lit exam, for example, wearing your best interview suit won’t magically make you do better. But there’s reason to at least consider sweatpants as the perfect outfit for both Netflix and calculus.