Q: Does wearing formal clothing improve my chances in a negotiation? If so, why?
A: Yes, there is scientific evidence that wearing formal clothing improves negotiating powers. There are also some clues that might suggest why this effect takes place.
Two researchers at two different universities, the University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign and UC-San Francisco, jointly published an article in the Journal of Experimental Psychology in 2014 on the effects of formal attire on negotiating.
The researchers looked through previous research that suggests that people with social dominance and higher social class tend to wield the most power in any negotiation.
They hypothesized that if two people were negotiating, the one with higher social dominance is going to gain an advantage, while the one with less social dominance is going to be at a disadvantage.
Possibly, just wearing clothes associated with social dominance might cause a mental change in two negotiators. Is this true?
For this experiment, the researchers invited two participants to come to the psychology lab at the same time.
- The 128 adult male participants were recruited for the study via Craigslist in the San Francisco Bay Area.
- Each pair of participants confirmed that they didn’t know the other person in real life.
- The participants were from a range of socio-economic classes (from high-school educated up to college, and a range of salaries).
When the participants showed up, they were randomly given an outfit to wear and were instructed to look at themselves in a mirror. The outfit was either:
- Formal (black suit, white shirt, black socks, and black dress shoes).
- Casual (blue sweatpants, white t-shirt, and plastic sandals from Walgreens).
- Neutral (participants remained in the clothing they showed up in).
All participants gave a saliva sample before the experiment started.
Half of the participants were given physiological measurement equipment to attach to their bodies.
The measurements were of:
- Cardiac vagal withdrawal (a way to measure variability between heartbeats)
- Heart rates
- Physiological emotional state
The two participants met each other and sat down in the same room.
Each participant was given a confidential folder that included information about a hypothetical company and were told that they were to role-play as the CFO of that company.
They each role-played the negotiation of the sale of a manufacturing plant (one was the buyer, one was the seller) and were instructed to discuss with one another the price of the manufacturing plant. Both were told – confidentially – that the fair market price that would benefit each party equally was $20.5 million.
- They could either demand more, less, or equal to that fair price.
They also had information regarding the real estate market changes, the cost of building a new plant, etc. that would be relevant to their negotiations.
Each participant was even given tips on how to negotiate (e.g., avoid settling for an unfair offer, taking the full time allotted for the agreement, holding out for more than a first offer).
The negotiation was limited to 6 minutes.
After the “negotiation,” a number of data points were collected, including whether the participants felt powerful and what the outcomes of the negotiation were.
Negotiation outcomes were measured in terms of number of concessions made, and profit earned on the deal (the amount above the $20.5 million dollar fair price).
- Concessions were measured this way: they recorded a participant’s starting offer, and then recorded how many times a participant was willing to change/compromise their offer.
They not only measured the effect of wearing certain clothing, they also measured the effect of negotiating against someone with certain clothing.
- They found that participants who wore formal clothing obtained significantly higher profits (around $2 million more) than those who weren’t.
- Casual or neutral participants didn’t differ significantly in profits.
- Casual participants made significantly more concessions than those in formal clothing.
- Participants who wore casual clothing had significantly lower testosterone after doing the negotiation.
- Participants with formal clothing didn’t change in testosterone.
Cardiac vagal withdrawal:
- When a person was negotiating against someone wearing formal clothing, he showed signs of reactivity in their cardiac vagal withdrawal (they experienced fluctuations in their nerve reactivity consistent with feeling vigilant against threats).
Sense of power:
- When a person was negotiating against someone wearing formal clothing, he felt less powerful.
The study found a number of effects of clothing on negotiation, in both wearers and perceivers.
Wearing formal clothing:
Significantly increased profits from the negotiation.
Wearing casual clothing:
Significantly increased the number of concessions a negotiator made.
Lowered a man’s testosterone.
Additionally, negotiating against someone wearing formal clothing (if the perceiver was in neutral or casual clothing):
Increased the perception of threat in a person’s nerves.
Decreased a man’s subjective feeling of power.
All this suggests that the researcher’s hypothesis was right:
Formal clothing is a sign of social dominance and status.
Therefore, it will boost negotiating power in a man who wears formal clothing, and will reduce that power in those who are negotiating against someone with formal clothing.
When people wear clothing from a certain social class, they gain the benefits of that class (and behave in a manner consistent with that class), regardless of how wealthy they actually are.
Kraus, M. W., & Mendes, W. B. (2014). Sartorial symbols of social class elicit class-consistent behavioral and physiological responses: A dyadic approach. Journal of Experimental Psychology: General, 143(6), 2330-2340. Link: https://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pubmed/25222264