Up to the 1800s, doctors traditionally wore black or beige coats during the course of their work. When exactly this changed is a matter of discussion, but around the beginning of the 19th Century, the white coat was introduced as the standard ‘uniform’ for doctors. Not because of the most obvious reason that all kinds of unpleasantness could be concealed by a black coat – rather, it was to distinguish doctors from dodgy snake-oil salesmen who would dupe members of the public with their ‘medical expertise’. Around this time, the role of bacteria in the transmission of disease also began to be recognised and so the doctor’s white coat was born.
The first to don the white coat were surgeons, followed by other hospital doctors, and finally GPs. But is there a chance that wearing that symbol of medical expertise might actually make you just a little bit more sharp and/or intelligent? There have been many studies on how what we wear affects how we are perceived, but there haven’t been as many to examine the effects it has on the wearer.
However, a 2017 study suggests wearing a lab coat may actually confer a cognitive benefit. Researchers at Northwestern University in the US organised a series of three experiments, the first of which featured 58 undergraduate students, half of whom wore a white lab coat. All participants were then asked to undertake the Stroop test, in which they were shown random differently-coloured words and asked to name the colour, rather than pronouncing the word itself.
Some of the words were presented in an incongruent manner. For example, the word ‘red’ may have been presented with blue-coloured letters. The people wearing the white coats were found to make approximately 50 per cent less errors than their plainclothed counterparts. But was it the white coat itself, or the medical connotation that made the participants perform better? To address this question, the researchers did another experiment with 99 students.
In this one, one-third of the group were told they were wearing a doctor’s coat; another one-third were told it was a white coat worn by an artist whilst painting; and the rest were in plain clothes, but had what they were told was a white doctor’s coat placed on the desk in front of them.
All were asked to write a brief essay on what a coat like that signified for them, after which they underwent four visual tests, whereby two almost identical pictures were presented to them and they were asked to write down the differences between the images as quickly as possible.
The results showed that all groups took roughly the same time to finish the tests. But the participants who were informed that they were wearing a doctor’s coat spotted more differences than their peers who were wearing an ‘artist’s’ coat. The ones in plain clothes scored somewhere in between the two other groups.
Whilst the results are curious and novel, they also raise perhaps more questions than they answer, said the lead researchers Adam Galinsky and Hajo Adam. For example, “does wearing the robe of a priest or judge make people more ethical?” they wrote. “Does putting on the uniform of a firefighter make people act more courageously? And perhaps even more interestingly, do the effects of physically wearing a particular form of clothing wear off over time, as people become habituated to it?” They termed this phenomenon ‘enclothed cognition’.
But why choose a doctor’s coat for the test? It is “the prototypical attire of scientists and doctors. Wearing a lab coat thus signifies a scientific focus (and conveys) the importance of paying attention to the task at hand and not making errors,” wrote Adam and Galinsky. “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,” they summarised. “There seems to be something special about the physical experience of wearing a piece of clothing.”
Of course, there is the other burning question of whether patients prefer doctors to wear white coats or not, but research into that will be reported in another Dorsal View.