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 behavioural 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 behaviour [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 behaviour, 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 behaviour. 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 behaviour 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 behaviour 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 behaviour 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 behaviour and performance of employees. Organizations may find a use in applying these nudges, which can be as simple as striking a power pose.

[1] The Cuddy et al. study is the subject of much contention after replication attempts have failed. Data Colada offers a good summary of both the original research and the replications (link). A link to the original study is here.
[2] Adam, Hajo, and Adam D. Galinsky. “Enclothed cognition.” Journal of Experimental Social Psychology 48, no. 4 (2012): 918-925.
[3] A third condition did not have participants wear the coat at all, but simply left an exposed “doctor’s coat” in the room and asked participants to write about how they identified with it – in the graph, this group is labeled as “identifying with a doctor’s coat.”
[4] Steele, Claude M. “A threat in the air: How stereotypes shape intellectual identity and performance.” American psychologist 52, no. 6 (1997): 613.
[5] The participants “were both good at math and strongly identified with it in the sense of seeing themselves as strong math students and seeing math as important to their self-definition.”
[6] Roberson, Loriann, and Carol T. Kulik. “Stereotype threat at work.” The Academy of Management Perspectives 21.2 (2007): 24-40.

Andrew Lewis
About Andrew Lewis:

Andrew is a writer and graduate student in public policy and behavioral economics at Carnegie Mellon University. He is a research and teaching assistant to George Loewenstein, and has served as a researcher at the BEDR Policy Lab, conducting experiments on topics such as confirmation bias in voter beliefs.