You are what you wear! Or so says the science of embodied cognition

Article by: Amanda McCracken

Did you ever put on dress to take a final exam while all your classmates came in their sweats?

Or maybe you wore a tie for a phone interview even though your prospective employer would never see you? You wanted to embody that "I'm taking this seriously," and "I want to succeed," mentality.

Elite athletes dress for success too. Some wear specific clothing for easy workouts and others for speed workouts or races. One outfit says, "I'm relaxed. I'm just getting the job done,” while the other says, "Watch me! I believe I can achieve my goals."

Although dressing for success in this way may be going by feel, it's an intuition many people have that is also supported by the science of embodied cognition.

Embodied Cognition proves what most of us intuitively feel: What we wear impacts how we feel about ourselves, which in turn impacts our performance. For athletes in particular, it's an important insight. By matching the science with what we intuitively feel, we can make more positive conscious decisions when choosing our performance clothing.

Noah Droddy, a two-time Olympic marathon qualifier, understands this concept well.

"Looking your best can inspire confidence," says the Indiana native, "and confidence often leads to better performances."

The 27-year-old Boulder resident has made a name for himself not only because of his athletic feats, but also because of his style: Long hair, mustache and a backwards hat—unique for his sport.

Droddy, who chooses his running clothes carefully, says he's less selective about his clothing for easy runs than he is when he's trying to maximize his performance. However, wearing a more relaxed fit does remind him to take it slow.

"I'm not trying to show off on those days," he says, "I'm trying to let my body recover."

When he requires speed, Droddy dons more form fitting apparel. "I think tighter clothing can help you feel what your body is doing in space," he says "and in some ways keep you more in tune with your effort."

He knows that reserving specific clothing for a particular purpose—like his racing kit—makes a difference psychologically.

"It becomes a part of the pre-race ritual," he says. "I know that when my singlet goes on, I'm representing my sponsors, and what's coming is an all-out effort. Other changes, like letting my hair down and turning my hat backwards, can be a gateway into a more competitive mindset."

For Laura Thweatt, 29, a professional runner who holds the sixth fastest marathon finish time among American women, its matching outfits that prepare her mentally.

“I'm a big believer in if I look good, I feel good," she says. "My teammates always make fun of me because I match to a 'T.'"

Whether her run is meant to be a short and easy one, or longer and taxing, wearing clothes that make her happy and want to get out the door, is key.

“I'll match my sports bra to my hat and my tank top to my shorts," says the Colorado native. "I want to feel put together when I go out to do a hard workout. I even match my training flats to my outfit."

Thweatt says compression socks also contribute to that “put together" feeling—both literally and figuratively. While she believes in the physical recovery benefit of compression socks, especially during blocks of hard training, she also believes in the psychological benefit. “It makes me feel like my muscles are ready to fire and go fast."

“If I feel I have on this awesome power running outfit," she continues, "then I feel that way mentally when I go into a workout—like I'm ready to rock. I put a lot of thought into it because it makes me feel like I have that edge."

Thweatt and Droddy know in their guts what scientists at Northwestern University proved in a 2012 study. In a New York Times article about the research, professor and study lead, Adam Galinsky, explained his findings: “We think not just with our brains but with our bodies and our thought processes are based on physical experiences that set off associated abstract concepts. Now it appears that those experiences include the clothes we wear." In other words, what we wear (and our associations with what we wear) impact how we think.

In one of the experiments, students were assigned a white coat to perform a task of identifying differences between two pictures. The first group of students was told they were wearing a doctor's coat, while the second group was told they were wearing a painter's coat. A third group was asked to only look for a long time at a doctor's coat on a desk before performing the assigned task. The students who wore the doctor's coat demonstrated better attention to detail than the other two groups. In order for psychological processes to be most affected, Galinsky pointed out in the Times piece that it must be a multisensory experience: "You have to wear the coat, see yourself wearing it, and feel it on the skin."

In both her viral TED talk and her book, Presence, Harvard lecturer and social psychologist Amy Cuddy illuminated for many how our body language changes our body chemistry and in turn impacts our minds. (While the validity of her research has been highly criticized, Cuddy and her followers still stand by her work). Her theory holds that if what we wear affects our body language, then so too will it affect our minds. And if the body achieves what the mind believes, then what we wear when we compete is important.

Pam Landry, owner of the Athlete's Edge, a sports psychology consulting and coaching firm in New Haven, Connecticut, certainly considers this to be true.

“I do believe that what an athlete wears can impact both thoughts and performance but only when the clothing or gear is associated with strong positive memories of an athlete's uniquely successful experiences and performances" she says. "I encourage the athletes that I work with to always note what gear they had on when they had a breakthrough race or training session, and to replicate some or all of those items for other key races.

"It's similar to 'wearing' a powerful self-affirmation," she continues, "imprinting those feelings of past success and accomplishment without having to utter a word, and keeping those memories of success right on your physical self."

When athletes make a conscious choice to associate particular clothing with success, it becomes more than just a lucky charm, Landry explains.

“This type of conscious choice," she says, "can elicit built-in positive thoughts that often lead to increased confidence and a more focused and relaxed approach to competition."

So why not get an edge on your competition by making a deliberate decision around what you wear?

“The 'magic' doesn't wear off because it's not magical thinking at all," Landry says. "It's a factual recording of personal history; a proven constant."

Zappos Footer

Make your inbox happy by joining our exclusive newsletter!