I Think I Am, Therefore I Am

“Man is what he believes.” – Anton Chekhov

On the expansive, straightened shoulders of Amy Cuddy’s now-infamous “power poses,” a wave of interest has swept through behavioral science – and indeed, popular culture – around the notion that one can “fake it until you make it” [1]. Headlines boast the saying, offering strategies for success, and human resources managers inculcate the ideal in new hires with Cuddy’s TED talk, the second most popular in series history.

The concept is quite simple: act how you want others to perceive you and, over time, you will come to see yourself that way. Easy to understand and exceedingly optimistic, the fake it approach is at best a homespun panacea for self-doubt, and at worst a clever placebo, winking at a deeper truth.

A number of similar findings bolster the influence of self-perception on one’s achievements.

The White-Coat Effect: Positive Perceptions and Performance

At Northwestern University, researchers sought to capture how the clothing one wears affects behavior [2]. In the study, participants were given a white lab coat to put on and asked to perform a series of tasks that require attention. In one condition, the lab coat was described to participants as a doctor’s coat, while in another, the same coat was described as a painter’s smock [3].

The authors hypothesized that, given the stereotypes surrounding the two professions – attentiveness and care for a doctor, aloofness and creativity for a painter – there would be a difference in how participants performed on the attention task. The table below summarizes the results:

As can be seen in the graph, the participants who wore the doctor’s coat performed significantly better than those who wore the painter’s smock – despite the fact that it was indeed the same piece of clothing. This effect, which the authors dub “enclothed cognition,” is daunting, and gives credence to the subconscious influence of perceptions on outcomes.

Stereotype Threat: Misperceptions and Mal-Effects

Of course, not all perceptions are positive. While the above example shows a way that we can weaponize perceptions to improve our behavior, just as often they can work against us.

This is the assertion of Steele (1997), who coined the idea of “stereotype threat.”[4] The basic concept is that any member of a group for which a negative stereotype exists — even those to whom it clearly does not apply — “can fear being reduced to that stereotype.” To go further, one does not need to believe the stereotype is true to be vulnerable to it.

To test this theory, researchers examined the gender difference in performance on a math exam, with male and female participants of equal (strong) math ability [5]. Inherent in their hypothesis is the common (mis)perception that women are worse at math than men.

Steele and his colleagues gave two versions of the test: on the first, participants were told that, in the past, women had performed worse on the test than men — on the second, they were told the test had yielded no such gender differences. In the “stereotype threat” condition, the gender gap in mean scores was close to 20 points — in the “no differences” condition, it was less than 5. This divide dramatically supports the claim that self-perception and expectation, framed at least in part by ubiquitous stereotypes, can meaningfully impact our performance.

Takeaways for the Workplace

Part of management is the ability to understand — and control — these forces that affect behavior. Both the white-coat effect and stereotype threat imply that it is not ability but rather perception of ability that often dictates how we perform.

The implications for managers are extensive. For one, this research may explain why some classical management techniques that rely on rewarding good and punishing bad behavior fail. If an employee is treated according to how he is perceived, then a poorly performing employee can be stuck in a self-fulfilling loop, where perceptions reinforce behavior and vice versa. More fundamentally, something as simple as how a job or task is framed may dictate who applies to do it, and how well she does it.

Follow-up research on stereotype threat seeks to identify steps organizations can take to minimize its impact in the workplace. Roberson et al (2007) suggest directly acknowledging and addressing the presence of stereotypes may be a good place to start [6]. Given that these social forces are present at least at a subconscious level, the logic goes, it is disingenuous to discuss workplace diversity without doing so.

Related to the former, there is a growing body of literature that posits certain types of clothing enhance productivity in the workplace. Slepian et al (2015) find that clothing worn influences cognition, and that more formal clothing enhances global and abstract processing.

What is interesting about the Slepian study is that, rather than mandate a dress code for the formal clothes-wearers in their treatment condition, they simply asked participants to wear what they might “to a job interview.” Thus, though these findings may imply the benefits of a formal dress code, a better approach may be to ask employees to think consciously about how clothes affect their own self-perception, and to dress accordingly.

In this way, we might combine the axiomatic “dress for the job you want” with our earlier fake it approach to be something like “dress like the person you want to be.” Or, for managers, treat your employees like the person you want them to be.

Closing Thoughts

It is clear that perceptions – both internal and external, implicit and explicit – shape our behavior in profound, unseen ways. Simple societal norms conspire with pernicious prejudices to tell us what we should and should not or can and cannot do. Yet, simple tweaks in our environment – a reminder that gender has no bearing on ability or, perhaps, a quick power pose – have the ability to render these effects insignificant. A clear understanding of and willingness to adapt to this rather banal insight that perceptions and context are in fact important will enable the best managers to leverage the awesome power of perceptions for the better.

From an organizational standpoint, small contextual and environmental cues in the workplace can meaningfully alter the behavior and performance of employees. Organizations may find a use in applying these nudges, which can be as simple as striking a power pose.

Read Next

Perspective

Are Workplaces the Key to Sustainable Cities?

Leveraging insights from behavioural science, local governments can help promote environmentally conscious workplace behaviour, conducive to the development of sustainable cities.

Perspective

Beyond Irrational Politics

What can behavioural science tell us about politics? A lot, it turns out. Political polarization has intensified to the extent that we give our trust based on who says something, not what they say.