What would you think if we told you that your lab coat could help you get better grades? It’s not magic. It’s not some wild new technology, either. Instead, research has shown that the white lab coat harnesses brain-focusing power in an unexpected way.
Just think, what do we tell children whose brains whirring away at a tricky task? “Put your thinking caps on.”
Maybe we’ve been pointing them to the wrong garment all along.
In past Dr. James articles, we’ve talked about different occasions for lab coats, but we never said studying was one of them. With multiple reports on the recent study showing an increase in focus when donning a white lab coat, however, it’s worth adding a “study coat” to the list.
What did this study test, and what did it find?
The implications of this recent study on white jackets found that wearing a doctor jacket, specifically, increased performance on tests requiring extremely close and sustained intention. The study was performed by telling participants that an identical white coat either belonged to a doctor or to a painter.
Participants’ performance on the related testing was significantly better when it was believed the white coat was a doctor lab coat.
So, what does this mean? We’ve seen now in a measurable way that the effect of the white coat is about more than just the psychology of white, and it’s about more than just the positive effect a white “dr. coat” has on patients. The power of the white lab coat is also about the deep effect it has on the wearer, both in behavior and thinking.
The two thought leaders who ran the study, Hajo Adams and Adam Galinsky of Northwestern University, called this effect “enclothed cognition.” Of course, that’s a play on words, running off the research logic called “embodied cognition” that studies how bodily sensations influence our emotions and thought. As a specific example of embodied cognition, past studies have found that something like a body position associated with power actually leads people to feel more powerful—and even raises testosterone levels.
If that’s not a great reason to sit up straight and look “ready to take on the world,” we don’t know what is.
Adams and Galinsky put this logic to the test by studying the effect of what we wear on our thinking and behavior. Could items of clothing that have a specific and deeply-engrained symbolic meaning have an effect on us, either physically, cognitively or both?
The lab coat is undoubtedly a thing of symbolism. For generations, the white jacket has been associated with scientific rigor and medical expertise. It’s revered, it’s respected, and its symbolism is deeply rooted in all our brains.
To test whether clothing garments could have an effect on the wearer, Adams and Galinksy chose the white lab coat because of its prototypical relationship to science and medicine. This relationship carries with it the assumption that the wearer is capable of paying careful attention to tasks and working with few or no errors.
The first of what were three total experiments focused around 58 undergraduate participants. Half of them were given a disposable lab coat to wear. These participants were told that the coat had been worn during an earlier stage of the study to protect clothes from construction dust, and they were asked to wear the coat so that all participants took the test under the same conditions.
Next came testing the participants’ selective attention. This was done by instructing participants to name the color of a word that flashed on a computer screen while not reading or processing the word itself. This test presented many intentional incongruencies, for example, the word “red” spelled out in green letters. And the result? The participants wearing the “dust protection” lab coat made just as many errors as peers wearing no white jacket.
The following experiment featured 99 students. One third were given a white doctor jacket and told that it was a medical doctor’s coat. Another third were given an identical jacket but told that it was a painter’s coat. The final third were not given a coat, but a doctor jacket was displayed on the desk in front of them over the duration of the exam.
All participants were asked to complete four visual search tests. Unlike the popular images that have gone viral on Facebook to “find the items that don’t match,” these tests featured nearly-identical pictures side-by-side with almost unperceivable differences. Participants were instructed to find those differences and write them down as quickly as possible.
Those told they were wearing a doctor lab coat found more differences than all other respondents. The time it took for participants to complete was the same across the board, and Adams and Galinsky described the superior results from the first group a direct result of heighted attention. Persistence alone couldn’t explain it since the test took the same time for all groups.
The main conclusions
Wearing the white lab coat focused participants’ minds, but only when they were told that it was an artifact of science. Those who thought it was a painter’s coat did not see any magical lift in their focus or performance. Even those who looked at and thought about the white doctor jacket—but didn’t wear it—saw an increased performance over the group wearing the “painter’s jacket.”
Adam and Galinsky wrote in their abstract that the influence of wearing a piece of clothing, while significant, depends on its symbolic meaning as well as the physical experience of wearing it.
These findings opened up even more possibilities for study and application in the future. More research is in the works now to see whether putting a judge’s robe makes people act more ethically, or whether a firefighter uniform makes people more courageous. And do these effects last long-term, or only for a short while after donning the garment?
This study’s success was based on the deep symbolism we see in the white lab coat. Encouraging this relationship between the white coat and excellence in science and medicine could be just what the next generation needs to continue in search of STEM professions. For those children who love science today, perhaps the gift of a children lab coat could help engrain that symbolism and sense of accomplishment earlier than ever.
These are all ideas worth exploring. Because exploring, after all, is the intrinsic nature of science.