Why buying a new shirt could win you more clients

It's all to do with how we subconsciously link wealth and competence

Why buying a new shirt could win you more clients
Steve Randall

Can you tell how competent someone is by the clothes that they wear?

Not unless you are assessing their competence in fashion choices; but subconsciously we tend to judge ability based on how ‘rich’ their clothes look, according to a new study.

But could the clothes that you wear help you to appear more competent and perhaps lead to gaining wealthy clients?

A team at Princeton University conducted several experiments to assess how someone’s clothing creates subtle economic cues that in turn lead us to determining their competence.

They found that low-income earners – assuming their clothes do not belie this – are likely to be considered less able.

"We found that such disrespect - clearly unfounded, since in these studies the identical face was seen as less competent when it appeared with poorer clothing - can have its beginnings in the first tenth of a second of an encounter," explained study co-author Eldar Shafir, Class of 1987 Professor in Behavioral Science and Public Policy at Princeton's Woodrow Wilson School of Public and International Affairs.

The studies used images of 50 people with clothes that independent judges had ranked as ‘richer’ or ‘poorer’ and asked participants to rate their competence.

Among the experiments, the same faces wore different clothes, and participants were even told in one experiment that clothing had no relationship to competence.

However, the studies all produced similar results; that a perception of richer clothes led to a perception of greater ability.

Hiring bias
While the study’s findings could be used to help influence others into feeling that the wearer of certain clothes is more competent, the results also show the negative bias that job seekers can face.

"Knowing about a bias is often a good first step," Shafir said. "A potential, even if highly insufficient, interim solution may be to avoid exposure whenever possible. Just like teachers sometimes grade blindly so as to avoid favoring some students, interviewers and employers may want to take what measures they can, when they can, to evaluate people, say, on paper so as to circumvent indefensible yet hard to avoid competency judgments. Academic departments, for example, have long known that hiring without interviews can yield better scholars. It's also an excellent argument for school uniforms."