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Want to Sharpen Your Brain? Here's the Clothing That Can Help, According to Research

It's why I do my best business in a t-shirt.

I few weeks ago, I went on television dressed like you see above — in jeans and a v-neck shirt.

When I posted a video of my segment on LinkedIn, a writer named Josh Bains asked why I decided to "dress down" for the interview:

Want to Sharpen Your Brain? Here's the Clothing That Can Help, According to Research

I have a personal and scientific answer to this — and it might even change what you wear when the stakes are high.

In short: Comfortable clothing improves cognitive performance. I've seen this myself, and multiple studies confirm it. Also, distinctive clothing has been shown to improve how others see you.

But of course, I didn't start doing this because I read some studies...

I started because I got some great advice.

It began a decade ago, when I worked at Fast Company. I was a magazine editor there, but started doing some on-camera work with the video team. Early on, I asked the director, Scott Mebus, what I should wear when on camera.

“Wear whatever makes you comfortable,” he told me. “Your comfort matters a lot more on camera than your clothing.”

That was a meaningful answer to me, because I am very uncomfortable in formal clothing. In fact, I despise formal clothing.

I think formalwear is the cultural equivalent of wisdom teeth. We have evolved beyond the more elaborate clothing of our ancestors, but we have not yet reached our fully casual destination. Suits and shirts are a vestigial organ, purposeless but not yet gone.

I am the best version of myself when I’m loose. And when I'm in public, I want to be the best version of myself.

Years later, I would discover that Scott's advice has scientific backing: Multiple studies, like this one from the Journal of Family and Consumer Sciences, have found that people's brains work better when they wear clothing they find comfortable.

"The more formal the attire, the lower the comfort rating of that attire and the lower the exam score," the researchers reported. "This study provides further evidence of a relationship between perceived clothing comfort and cognitive performance."

To be clear, this isn't about t-shirts. It's about what an individual person finds comfortable. If you love suits, you'll probably perform better in them. In fact, other research has found benefits to wearing formal clothing.

Because I know what makes me comfortable, I wear t-shirts as often as I can — especially when I must be my sharpest in public. I often go on TV in a t-shirt, for example, and I dress the same for my paid speaking gigs. I generally wear a black or blue v-neck shirt, because it looks clean and intentional, like this:

Want to Sharpen Your Brain? Here's the Clothing That Can Help, According to Research

When Entrepreneur had an office, I showed up there in a t-shirt too.

To be clear, I am not blind to the realities of the world, and I am not trying to be obnoxious. If an event calls for something more formal, I’ll happily make the concession. I recently had breakfast with some foreign dignitaries, for example, and they told me it was a formal affair. I showed up appropriately.

But when I have a choice, I will exercise that choice.

And you know what? People often notice — in a good way.

Let’s talk about the “red sneakers effect”

In 2013, some Harvard researchers published a fascinating study. It was titled “The Red Sneakers Effect: Inferring Status and Competence from Signals of Nonconformity”.

In short, the research found that when people dressed more casually or unusually — like, say, wearing red sneakers at a formal event — they were perceived as having a higher status.

“Nonconforming behaviors, as costly and visible signals, can act as a particular form of conspicuous consumption and lead to positive inferences of status and competence in the eyes of others,” the researchers wrote.

This has its limits, of course.

First, the act must look deliberate. It’s the difference between someone who dresses poorly, and someone who is making a conscious decision. That’s because, when a person intentionally violates what other people expect, they portray themselves as independent and unafraid.

Second, the person must already have some level of status. Obviously, a job applicant — who has no status in a company — will not look good by showing up in a t-shirt.

To be clear: I am not wearing t-shirts as some kind of flex. This isn’t about displaying power or status. It is about comfort and doing my best work.

But I am mindful that, because I’m already presented as an expert, my clothing won't harm many people’s perceptions of me. In fact, it might help perception!

And what are people’s responses?

Well, here’s one — from Marysol Castro, one of the hosts of the TV segment I was on, who saw the LinkedIn comment and weighed in.

Want to Sharpen Your Brain? Here's the Clothing That Can Help, According to Research

Thank you, Marysol!

And here’s another data point:

Just the other day, I spoke to a group of executives in a very traditional, formal industry. They were all in suits. I wore a t-shirt. When I began, I drew attention to this — and presented it as an asset.

“I’m not here to tell you how to run your business,” I told them. “You know that better than I do. I’m obviously an outsider — which is why I’m dressed like one.”

I had their attention. Then I went on to tell them about my outsider value: I can see things they can’t. I can tell them how others are thinking. And I can hopefully help them see their own work in a new, fresh way. Which is what I then spent 45 minutes discussing.

The talk went very well. Afterwards, multiple people came up and said they were jealous: They hate wearing a suit too, they said.

As far as I'm concerned, they should stop wearing it.

Who's This Other Guy In A T-Shirt?

Want to Sharpen Your Brain? Here's the Clothing That Can Help, According to Research

I had a blast being on Gary Vaynerchuk's podcast this week. We talked about the big mistake that innovators make and how to define your purpose. My definition is seven words long. Gary's is only two! Listen here.

Gary and I spoke a lot about my book too — if you haven't already, find the hardcover, audio, or ebook here.

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Cover credit: Getty Images / PIX11