Suits Don’t Tie Down Creative Thinking

Business casual is now commonplace, but is it the right dress code when the job calls for abstract thinking?

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Based on research by Michael Slepian, S.N. Ferber, J.M. Gold, and A.M. Rutchick

Earlier this year the famously buttoned up Goldman Sachs underwent, by its standards, an extreme makeover. In a March memo to its employees, the Wall Street firm relaxed its dress code, which many took as a watershed, and that casual clothes at work are now the norm.

The change follows a 2017 decision by Goldman Sachs to loosen dress standards for tech workers to entice top hoodie-wearing IT talent to the company. The firm advised its employees, 75 percent of whom were born after 1981, to “use good judgment” and acknowledged that contemporary workplaces are “generally in favor” of a more causal environment.

The easing of rules around workplace attire is attributed to a view that millennials, according to a 2017 article in The Atlantic, are not accustomed to being hemmed in by strict dress codes, including the now pervasive “business casual.” According to the article, clothing for millennials and the coming wave of Gen-Zs now entering workforce acts as an expression of the self, and that authenticity as a look is a workplace priority.

But do the clothes we wear change the way we think?

As recent research has revealed, it is not necessarily the case that dressing casually will fashion increased creativity or abstract thinking in the office.

A paper co-authored by Sanford C. Bernstein & Co. Associate Professor of Leadership and Ethics Michael Slepian titled, “The Cognitive Consequences of Formal Clothing,” demonstrates that wearing formal clothes actually bolsters abstract thinking.  The study, published in Social Psychological and Personality Science in 2015 and co-authored by Simon Ferber, Joshua Gold and Abraham Rutchick all of California State University, Northridge, details experiments that elucidate the relationship between wearing formal clothes and the idea of social distance, which the researchers say can be an element in abstract thought.

Slepian says his team’s research built upon existing data regarding the impression clothes make on an observer; often the more formal the clothes, the more status people believe the wearer possesses. “If people appear to have higher status, people are more likely to follow them as if they were leaders and conform to their behavior,” Slepian says. “That’s all very interesting and it makes perfect sense… but prior research had yet to look at the person wearing the clothes.” 

The study involved groups of college students who were instructed to bring two sets of clothes, one “informal” and the other “formal.” Slepian is quick to note that “formal,” for the purposes of the study means “less casual.” 

“When I say ‘formal clothing’ I don’t mean a suit, I don’t mean a tie,” Slepian says. “When we ask people how formal their clothing is, we meant relative to your peers, your co-workers.” 

In one case, students were asked to rate on a sliding scale the formality of their own clothes to those of their peers.  The students were then asked to pick their preferred term for locking a door: “putting a key in the lock” or “securing the house.”  The research demonstrated that those wearing relatively more formal clothes preferred the former term.

Slepian says the study sought to discover whether putting on formal clothing evokes a sense of social distance. “(The distance) is a social step back, not just in how we act, but in also how we think,” he says. “When we take a step back, we take the larger view, the big picture, how the pieces fit together. That kind of psychological distance is what we call abstract thinking.”

The creation of that distance, which also encompasses a feeling of power, is what led Slepian and his co-researchers to the idea that formal clothes might foster abstract thinking.  “Sure enough, when people are wearing formal clothing, or when we make them change into it,” Slepian says, “the more people engage in these more abstract models of thinking.”

Yet, when Slepian has discusses the study, he says there is an almost universal rejoinder: “Yeah, but what about tech.” Slepian says that even the famously casual Silicon Valley has its own brand of formality. “Even if the whole baseline is set to casual, there’s still degrees of formality within that local norm,” he says. “Yes, they wear casual clothes, but they wear all these technologically advanced clothes too, like pants where the water falls right off. There are still gradations of their clothing, how sophisticated, how nice, how formal.”

Slepian said the research does not advocate for more formal dress codes, as he says abstract thoughts are not the only kind ideas that firms and organizations require. “Someone still needs to implement the ideas, someone needs to attend to the details,” he says.

About the researcher

Michael Slepian

Michael Slepian is the Sanford C. Bernstein & Co. Associate Professor of Leadership and Ethics in the Management Division of Columbia Business School...

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