Since making its breakthrough on the medical scene in the late 19th century, the white lab coat has been a heavyweight of recognizable symbols.
Alongside the priest’s collar, the fireman’s helmet, the policeman’s badge, or Jose Mourinho’s overcoat during his first stint at Chelsea FC, the white lab coat is a powerhouse of easy to recognize uniforms. Simply put, stethoscope or no stethoscope, it screams, “I am a doctor.”
But did you know, the white lab coat does not just ooze authority? The humble garment also acts as a self-help guide for us mere mortal humans. Don’t believe me? Well, here’s some scientific evidence to back it up!
For instance, in 2012, a peer-reviewed academic paper published in the Journal of Experimental Social Psychology (JESP) found that wearing a white lab coat affected the wearer’s attention span in performance tests over a sustained period. It cannot be overstated – this mere item of clothing has mind-bending power! Even more bizarrely, the results were not replicated when the wearers were told that the white coat they were wearing belonged to a visual artist who would wear it to protect their clothes from spatters while painting. Let that sink in.
Sunk in? Great! Now let’s explore further what that actually means and how it came about.
The White Lab Coat Wears You
The research was conducted by two scholars at Northwestern University in Illinois, USA. These are Hajo Adam and Adam Galinsky. In concluding their findings, the pair wrote this fortune cookie-esque summary:
“The clothes we wear have power not only over others, but also over ourselves.”
This research finding is heavy-duty. The duo labeled this mind-bending theory as “enclothed cognition.” This concept is explained as the effects that clothing has on our cognitive processes.
In setting out on this research journey, Adam and Galinsky wanted to discover if the clothing you wear alters how you conceive and collaborate with the world around you?
To get to the bottom of this conundrum, the pair conducted three separate experiments to put a method to their madness.
First up to bat were 58 undergraduates who were randomly picked to wear either a white lab coat or their standard day-to-day attire. This plucky bunch was then tested for selective attention examining their capacity to spot mismatches such as an image of a wealthy woman driving a rundown car. In this instance, those wearing white lab coats made 50% fewer errors than those wearing day-to-day clothes.
In the next round of testing, 74 students were casually selected to one of three options: wearing a doctor’s coat, wearing a painter’s coat, or seeing a doctor’s coat. They were then measured for sustained attention. This was conducted by looking at two near-identical images side-by-side and being asked to identify four minor discrepancies. The results? Those who wore the doctor’s coat again performed significantly better, conveying an acquired heightened sense of attention.
To round off their research, Adam and Galinsky lastly explored this trigger effect more thoroughly. Does simply seeing a physical item, like the white lab coat, affect behavior? Students either wore a doctor’s coat or a painter’s coat or were told to notice a doctor’s lab coat for an extended time. All three groups then wrote essays reflecting their feelings on the garments. To finish the test, they were suspected for continous attention.
As with the previous two experiments, the group wearing the white lab coat (that they had been told belonged to a doctor) showed the most significant improvement in attention.
How STEM and the White Lab Coat are Symbiotic
Much has been made of this study in the ensuing years since its release. Most notably, it has been pinpointed as a possible means to increase participation in the STEM fields, where job positions are growing, not to mention alongside more excellent pay rates. However, the struggle to fill them still exists due to continued lower participation rates in college.
Here, based on Adam and Galinsky’s research, the idea is that having school children practice STEM subjects in white lab coats will help students see themselves as scientists and aspire to scientific careers. Simply put, it will boost their confidence and belief that they can successfully participate in the STEM fields.
These findings were replicated in 2019 when eight professors conducted similar-themed experiments on elementary school children. After wearing a white lab coat in science class, 45% of pupils indicated they now had positive feelings toward science. Anecdotally, the professors reported that many of the students in the coats began to write “Dr.” in front of their names during the experiment.
Based on this idea of enclothed cognition, it seems likely that wearing a white lab coat from a young age will vastly improve students' belief in their STEM abilities, their levels of recognition, and thus, naturally, their science career aspirations.
And so it appears that the humble white lab coat truly is like a superhero’s cape. As Spiderman’s uncle said, “with great power comes great responsibility.” And it seems that even the simple act of donning the white lab coat to take part in a research experiment bestows on us mere mortals a heightened sense of cognitive ability to live up to the integrity that the white lab coat has represented for 120 plus years.
Overall, it is clear from this research that the power and symbolism of the white lab coat are as solid and recognizable as ever. Not only is it still seen as a sign of professionalism, integrity, empathy, trustworthiness, and compassion, but it also has the power to access previously hidden parts of our personalities and boost our levels of attention, recognition, and awareness.
The critical takeaway here is that not only can our choice of clothing act as a fashion statement to others about our personality, but it can also change the way we perceive ourselves and unlock truly hidden potential to “be all that we can be.”
Who would have thought that your choice of clothing could directly affect your ability to successfully perform a task? I guess the saying, “dress for success,” has just taken on a whole new level of responsibility.