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Mad Scientists Are Right: Science Proves Lab Coats Make Your Smarter

Would the Lizard have been able to transform himself into a giant reptile without his snazzy lab coat? Would Dr. Horrible have built his freeze ray if he hadn’t kept his horrible duds bleached and starched? Does Hank McCoy really need to don a white coat over his blue fur in order to do science? According to a new study published in the Journal of Experimental Social Psychology, lab coats can boost your mental prowess — as long as you think you’re stepping into a scientist’s wardrobe.In the paper, titled “Enclothed Cognition,” Northwestern University professors Hajo Adam and Adam Galinsky explore the aphorism “the clothes make the man” by studying the psychological impact of wearing a lab coat. In their first experiment, Adam and Galinksy collected 58 undergrads, and gave half of the undergrads disposable white lab coats. The coats were not described to the subjects as lab coats; in fact, they were told that the coats had been used in an earlier round of study to protect the subjects from construction dust, and that they must wear the coats so that all subjects would look uniform.

Even without being specifically told that these were scientific lab coats, the act of wearing the coat seemed to have some brain-boosting benefit. The researchers administered a Stroop task, a test in which subjects are asked to look at a color word that was written in a different color than the word itself (the word “red” written in “green,” for example). The subjects wearing the lab coats made half as many errors as their less scientifically-attired brethren.

But the second experiment suggested that the power of a simple white coat can actually be enhanced or diminished with just a few words. In a second experiment, Adam and Galinsky studied 99 volunteers. They gave identical white coats to two-thirds of the subjects, but of those, half were told that they were wearing a medical doctor’s coat and the other half was told they were wearing an artist’s coat for painting. The other subjects didn’t wear a white coat, but instead looked at a white coat laid out on a desk, were told it was a doctor’s lab coat, and were asked to write a short essay about what the lab coat means to them personally.

All of the subjects were given a picture search test, asked to identify four differences between two otherwise identical images. (Presumably, this was not the nudie version of the test you see in bars; otherwise, a velvet smoking jacket would have been more appropriate.) Subjects who had been told they were wearing doctors’ coats spotted more differences than subjects who thought they were in artists’ clothes. Subjects who had seen the coat and written the essay scored in between. The researchers believe that focusing on the experience of a doctor’s lab coat granted the wearers a sort of heightened attention:

“The main conclusion that we can draw from the studies is that the influence of wearing a piece of clothing depends on both its symbolic meaning and the physical experience of wearing the clothes,” Adam and Galinsky write. “There seems to be something special about the physical experience of wearing a piece of clothing.”

This certainly explains the wardrobe choices of fictional scientists — mad or otherwise — over the years. But, more importantly, have we finally opened the door to a study on the social psychological effects of wearing superhero underwear?

Via The Mary Sue

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