Myth: You can choose to either dress more authoritatively (formal wear), or more open and friendly (casual), but not both.
Truth: Formal dress can increase both authority and openness.
One study of doctors in England examined an assumption that has been made in the medical field: When doctors are dressed in more formal professional attire, it increases the appearance of medical authority. But does this make doctors seem less approachable? Are patients of a fomally-dressed doctor less likely to feel open and honest about their symptoms with doctors? Could dressing casually make people feel trusting and open with their doctors?
- The experimenters created digital photographs of male and female doctors wearing three different outfits:
- A white doctor’s coat, plain white shirt, and black trousers (standard doctor's attire)
- A suit with white shirt and tie (or a white blouse for women) and dress shoes (formal attire)
- Blue jeans, plain white T-shirt, and trainers (casual attire)
- In all conditions, the doctor had a clipboard, stethoscope, and name badge.
- Then, participants were asked about their impressions of the doctors in the photographs. The responses were categorized in primarily three ways: whether the doctor looked like an authority, whether the doctor seemed friendly, and whether the doctor was attractive.
- Their findings:
- Status and authority were positively related to friendliness/trustworthiness. In other words, a doctor who seemed like an authority was also rated as more friendly/trustworthy.
- Casual attire was rated the lowest on authority, friendliness, and attractiveness in almost all conditions!
- Doctors wearing white coats were seen as having more medical authority, and doctors wearing formal clothes were seen as friendlier, but both white coats and formal attire were better than casual across the board.
- The researchers concluded: “Casual dress is not likely to be an effective tactic for doctors to increase patient comfort or disclosure…Casual dress decreases perceptions of authority, regardless of the gender of the doctor or the patient. Casual dress also decreases perceptions of friendliness (compared to formal attire), trust (for male patients), and attractiveness. What would appear to be the most reasonable sartorial advice for doctors is to dress formally and to wear a white coat, but perhaps to remove the white coat in more socially delicate contexts.”
Can this experiment be generalized to other fields besides medicine? I would say probably yes, in cases where authority, status, and trustworthiness are all crucial to the field and inter-related. This could be business, law, other professional occupations, or even teachers and professors.
Brase, G. L., & Richmond, J. (2004). The white-coat effect: Physician attire and perceived authority, friendliness, and attractiveness. Journal of Applied Social Psychology, 34(12), 2469-2481. https://www.k-state.edu/psych/research/documents/2004JASP_000.pdf