Dress to Impress - the Authority vs. Liking Playoffs

Tuesday, 19 June, 2012 08:39Comments

The effects when you dress for success

By Steve Martin, CMCT

It’s taken you weeks, perhaps even months, of hard work and tenacity, but it appears that your efforts are, at last, starting to pay dividends. Your phone rings. It’s the personal assistant of that important and potentially lucrative new client you have been targeting. They are calling to confirm a meeting the following week. You briefly allow yourself a moment of self-congratulation before turning your attention to planning for the appointment. Meetings like this are hard to come by and the chances are you’ll only have one opportunity to make a great impression. You want to come across as a trustworthy and credible communicator, friendly, likeable, approachable and influential.

So in order to do this what exactly should you wear if you want to be dress to impress?

For many years persuasion scientists have been studying the effects of clothing on people’s likelihood to be influenced. Social psychologist Leonard Bickman is well known for his studies that demonstrated the powerful sway of the well-attired. Many of his experiments would involve a researcher stopping a passer-by and asking them to comply with a request of sorts. Sometimes the request would be to pick up a piece of discarded litter. On other occasions the request would be to stand on a specific spot by a bus stop. My personal favorite involved asking passers-by to give change for a parking meter to a complete stranger.

In each case Bickman would vary not the requester themselves, but instead what the requester was wearing. On some occasions it would be ordinary casual clothes and at others a uniform including a security guard and even a milkman. Tellingly, in surveys conducted prior to the studies, most participants would dramatically underestimate the influence the uniformed requester would have on their decisions to comply. The results, of course, told a different story with often twice as many people being persuaded to act when the requester wore the security guard uniform.

Other more recent studies have found similar effects. For example, a UK study demonstrated that people were significantly more likely to recall health messages when the healthcare professional had a stethoscope draped over their shoulders than when no stethoscope was present. Interestingly the stethoscope never had to be employed. Rather than acting as an effective instrument to inform the medical professional of a potential condition it instead acted as an effective instrument to inform the patient of the wearer’s credibility and knowledge.

Given that the above cases suggest the automatic influence of a uniformed person, is the suggestion to don a suitably compliance-inducing costume each time you attend a new client meeting? Certainly not. In Influence –Science & Practice Robert Cialdini cites studies where donning a straightforward business suit can have equal effect. In one such experiment 350% more people were willing to follow a man crossing the street against a red light and against the traffic (and, incidentally, against the law) when he wore a suit rather than casual clothes.

It is interesting to note that in all these studies, and others like them, a person’s clothing was primarily influencing behaviour for one very simple reason. No other information existed about the requester’s expertise. The immediate implications are clear. When meeting someone for the first time, it is important to dress at a level that matches one’s true expertise and credentials. Doing so would be using the principle of authority in an ethical and insightful way.

But modern day business meetings are rarely so straightforward. With the advent of different dress codes, from business formal to dress down casual and a myriad of others in between, perhaps it would be more effective to draw on another powerful driver of human decision making - similarities.

Cialdini’s Principle of Liking informs us that another potential route to effective persuasion is to look for and highlight genuine commonalities. What better way of highlighting similarities and minimizing dissimilarities than to find out the dress code of the specific organization and match it on the day of your meeting? But again such an approach is not without its pitfalls. Is one truly being genuine and authentic by matching a dress code that they would not normally choose for themselves? And even if one is genuine and you realise the upside of similarities are there downsides in so far as your authority and credibility could potentially be undermined?

As is often the case in persuasion, a more effective route might be to employ elements of each of the principles. This could mean that where and when it is appropriate we should dress in a reasonably similar style to an influence target but at perhaps one level higher. A neck tie or perhaps a jacket, for example, might be optimal in an office that generally practices a more business casual policy.

As is also often the case, I’m sure that you, the Inside Influence Report reader, will have an opinion of your own. We’d love to hear them. Regardless of what you are wearing!

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Bickman, L. (1974) The Power of a Social Uniform. Journal of Applied Social Psychology Volume 4, Pages 47 – 61.

Cialdini, R.B. (2009) Influence –Science & Practice (5th Edition). Allyn & Bacon New York

Castledine, G. (1996) Nursing’s image: It is how you use your stethoscope that counts. British Journal of Nursing Volume 5:882

Lefkowitz, M., Blake, R., & Moulton, J.S Status factors in pedestrian violation of traffic signals. Journal of Abnormal & Social Psychology, Volume 51, 704-706

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