Dressed for excess

A SSHRC-funded researcher looks at how clothing can affect our perceptions of others

“Clothes make the man,” according to an old saying. But, can clothes also make a social profiler? It seems the answer is, yes.

A study funded with a SSHRC Insight Development Grant found that people dressed in police-style uniforms who were shown images of individuals wearing hoodies were distracted by them, while those wearing regular clothes were not.

The head of this study is Sukhvinder Obhi, a professor in the Department of Psychology, Neuroscience & Behaviour at McMaster University, and director of its Social Brain, Body & Action Lab.

“We’ve been interested in how power exerts its effects on social perception and cognition,” says Obhi. “Clothing is one of the most common ‘psychological state-inducers’ in humans, we use it all the time and it affects how we feel—in short, it affects our state.”

Specifically, the study sought to find out whether “the simple act of putting on a police-style uniform could induce changes in the way individuals literally see the social world.”

Over 100 students participated. While wearing different kinds of clothing, they performed simple tasks on a computer, such as identifying a shape as a circle or a square by pressing a button as quickly as possible. While they focused on their task, images of people were flashed on the screen. Some pictures showed people dressed in suits, some in hoodies; some people were black, others were white. The researchers then measured the reaction time in the participants to complete what they were doing as an indication of how distracted they were by these images.

The reaction time of everyone in the group wearing police uniforms was slowed when they saw the pictures of people wearing hoodies. “We think this is due to the association between hoodies and low socio-economic status, and potentially also the association of hoodies with crime. We also think that feeling powerful when wearing the police uniform may have contributed to the increased use of stereotyping toward the individuals in hoodies, because past research has shown that power is associated with increased stereotyping,” observes Obhi.

“People wearing mechanic’s overalls did not show the attentional bias to hoodies. Participants also did not show the bias when they were wearing regular clothes but had the police uniform on the table in front of them during the task,” he explains.

Another surprising finding of the study is that none of the participants wearing police uniforms showed biased attention to the images of black people, which is in sharp contrast to events in recent years between police officers and members of black communities, particularly in the United States.

“The fact that we did not find this effect could be due to the different socio-cultural context here in Canada. More work is needed on this question though.”

Obhi feels the data from this study would benefit police organizations and related governmental agencies, and he would like to form partnerships with them to share this knowledge and expand on his findings.

“Our ultimate aim is to do work that can have a positive impact in the world,” he says.