Dressed to Influence: The Effects of Experimenter Dress on Participant Compliance
Anastacia E. Damon,
Do this test as RAPIDLY AS YOU CAN. Read all the steps before you do anything.
In order to control how directions were given to participants, two DVD recordings were made of the same actor dressed in either casual or professional clothing (see Figure 2). The actor was a 22-year old female, who was also a college student. The actor was asked to read from a script of directions twice, once while wearing professional attire and once while wearing casual attire. The actor read the script with the same emphasis and pace in both recordings. The actor was blind to any of the details or theories being tested by the experiment to avoid any experimenter bias.
Figure 2. A video screenshot of the actor dressed professionally (left) and casually (right)
In order to ensure that students interpreted the casual and professional dress style of the lead experimenter as we intended, a manipulation check was conducted where 40 students from a research methods course watched either the professional or casual-dress videos and then rated how professional the experimenter’s dress appeared. Students watched one of the two videos, then indicated how professional or casual they thought the attire of the experimenter was on a scale of 1 (casual attire) to 5 (professional attire) using an empirically-grounded questionnaire adopted from Cardon and Okoro (2009). As expected, an analysis using an independent samples t-test confirmed that students perceived the professionally-dressed experimenter as more professional (M = 2.73, SD = .99) than the casually dressed experimenter (M = 1.45, SD = .74); t (39) = 4.74, p < .001.
Using a between-participants design, participants were randomly assigned to one of the two levels of the independent variable tested (dress: casual or professional) upon arriving at the testing location. The experiment employed a double-blind procedure whereby an initial experimenter met participants outside the test area and randomly assigned them to a condition, while secondary experimenters inside the test area were blind to which condition each participant was assigned. All the experimenters had minimal contact with the participants except to seat them and then begin one of the two video recordings. When participants entered the laboratory, an experimenter read from a short script to inform participants that they would be watching a video that detailed directions about the experiment. Then one of the two videos was played where the lead experimenter gave directions to participants to: a) use a blue pen, b) write their age and gender (in blue pen), c) read all the instructions on the test before beginning the test, d) turn their papers over when done, and e) leave the test on the desk. The only difference between the videos was the dress of the actor who read them.
After the participants finished viewing the recording, they were instructed to see one of the experimenters to receive their one unit of credit and a detailed debriefing form. Once participants had left the lab, the researchers recorded how many of the directions had been followed correctly.
To test for differences in direction-following
behavior between conditions, participants’ first received one point for every direction they followed correctly,
for a total of five possible points. We hypothesized that participants in the professional condition would follow
directions more accurately than participants in the casual condition. The data were analyzed using an independent
samples t-test. Our results revealed that participants in the professional dress condition (M = 1.06, SD =
1.01) followed directions less accurately than the participants in the casual dress condition (M =
2.17, SD = 1.34); t (66) = 3.79, p < .001. Put differently, these results indicate that
participants in the casual dress condition followed more directions correctly than participants in the professional
dress condition. Table 1 separates the percentage of participants who followed directions correctly by dress condition
and each specific direction, for a total of five directions.
|Directions followed in the professional and casual groups.|
|Wrote gender and grade level on test||Professional
|Wrote in blue pen||Professional
|Read all steps before writing on test||Professional
|Turned test over||Professional
|Left test on desk||Professional
The results of this experiment did not support the hypothesis that participants would follow directions with greater accuracy when the directions were delivered by an experimenter who was dressed professionally. In fact, the opposite was found to be true; participants in the casual-dress condition correctly followed more of the lead experimenter’s directions by a ratio of more than two to one. These results were found to be surprising, especially in light of the seemingly contrary findings by Bickman (1974), Bushman (1984, 1988), and Leff, Nydegger, and Buck (1970).
Why did participants in this study follow the directions of an experimenter more accurately when the actor was dressed more casually? One possible interpretation of these results would be that the casually dressed actor made the participants feel less anxious about their participation in the study, thereby increasing those participants’ abilities to follow directions more closely. Studies of anxiety show that anxiety can impair performance on academic exams (Cassady & Johnson, 2002), increase automobile driving errors (Taylor, Deane, & Podd, 2007), and can decrease interactions with counselors (Hubble & Gelso, 1978). It may be true that participants who are participating in experiments feel anxious about what might happen to them during the experiment. Recent research has demonstrated how easily anxiety can be induced in students with a resulting decrement in performance. For example, when students are shown the word “red” prior to taking a test, they associate the word with corrective ink, thereby increasing anxiety and reducing intellectual performance (Lichtenfeld, Maier, Elliot, & Pekrun, 2009). Thus, similar increases in anxiety on the basis of professional dress may have created the effects we report here. We encourage future researchers with interests in the effects of dress and compliance to test for increases in anxiety.
A second interpretation may also help us understand why participants followed directions more accurately with a casually dressed experimenter. The three previous studies mentioned in the introduction that are most similar to this current study (Bickman,1974; Bushman, 1984, 1988) were the basis of the research design. All are over 20 years old. It may be that with the change in time, various social influences like style of dress and acceptance of a more casual dress style may be the basis of change in results from previous research to this current study. Examples of this research include the findings of Morris et al. (1996) where a preference for a casual counselor was indicated. Even though Peluchette and Karl (2007) found that employees believe dressing professional is attributed to good work ethics, employees prefer a more casual work place. With a change in time, comes change in the people that participate in laboratory experiments. We strongly encourage other researchers to look further into this interpretation of our results because all research has to be in tune with changes in society, even with something as simple as dress style that may be overlooked.
Other theories might also explain our results. For example, it could be that it was not the casual dress of the experimenter per se that reduced anxiety, but rather, it was the similarity between participant and experimenter dress that did so. Perhaps the participants in our study felt that they were better able to relate to the experimenter in the casual-dress condition, thereby lowering their anxiety and increasing their ability to follow directions correctly. If this is the case, then it might make more sense for psychologists to try to recruit student researchers who are of similar age and appearance to the participant population being examined. Another explanation for the findings could be that there was a stronger participant reaction bias in the professional condition whereby students felt inclined to rebel against the professionally-dressed experimenter by intentionally not following directions.
Ultimately, more research is required to disentangle why participants followed the directions of the casually dressed
experimenter more accurately. Regardless of the cause of the effect, the findings do urge some caution before strict
professional dress codes are adopted in psychology laboratories. Although professional dress may be common and
appropriate in business settings, it may be increasingly less so in classrooms and psychology laboratories. Therefore
professional dress may exacerbate participant anxiety or create perceived differences between the researcher and
experimenter that result in less-accurately followed directions. As noted by Morris et al. (1996), fashion has
changed since many of the studies on dress were conducted, and it may be true that potential anxiety responses
based on the comparative dissimilarity between the dress of an average participant and a professionally-dressed
experimenter have, and will continue, to increase. On the basis of these findings, we suggest that psychologists
advise students to dress professionally when presenting research and when applying for research positions, but
that researcher’s should think twice before requiring professional dress in laboratory settings.
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