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Costumes We Wear

“All the world’s a stage and all the men and women merely players.” ~ William Shakespeare.

Halloween comes around and suddenly everyone is talking about costume ideas for parties, for going to trick or treat, or just because it is the one day they can dress up - no questions asked. It gets me wondering why we are so enamored of the idea of dressing as someone or something other than ourselves. Well, scientists who have studied Halloween for years to see what they can learn about human psychology suggest many possible theories.

First of all, like other rituals, people may enjoy the feelings that come with wearing a costume on Halloween based on their memories and previous experiences of fun times spent as an accepted member of a group of similarly dressed up friends or family. Or, they may enjoy flexing their creative and artistic brain for what amounts to imaginative play, similar to what they used to indulge in as children. Costumes may allow us to safely bring up things that normally frighten us or may be taboo to think and talk about, like sexuality, violence, death, and the supernatural. Costumes also let us try on new identities of different age, race, gender, species, or even inanimate and alien personas. A costume may reveal something about who people are or want to be, and may allow them to feel special or powerful in ways they cannot experience in everyday life, e.g. with superhero costumes, or sexy attire.

Experiments observing both adults and children have repeatedly shown that wearing a costume can influence our behavior. For example, a study in 1976 found that children whose Halloween costumes rendered them anonymous were more likely to steal candy than those whose faces could be identified. This is common in human behavior—when we are able to remain unidentified, we are more likely to display otherwise unacceptable behavior towards others.

Another study of how dress may affect psychology was done by researchers who had previously observed that wearing a lab coat can unconsciously convey intelligence and competency, when worn by oneself or if seen on others. So, they asked participants in their experiment to don a lab coat. Simply wearing the coat increased participants’ attention on cognitive tasks. Then they compared performance of participants who were told it was a doctor’s lab coat vs others who were told it was a painter’s smock. Those who wore the “doctor’s” coat performed much better on attention-related tasks. The researchers concluded that the influence of dress on behavior depends on the symbolic meaning of the clothes and the physical experience of wearing them.

In 2015, a group from Columbia University and California State University published results of 5 studies that looked not at costumes but just formal, professional clothes and how they affect the way students think. All of the studies focused on abstract vs. concrete processing, and showed that those wearing formal clothes were more likely to display abstract, creative and big picture thinking, most likely because of an association of formal dress with enhanced feelings of power.

It appears that whether it is for Halloween, work, or our daily lives, whatever costume we choose has the potential to affect our sense of self, our thinking and our behavior. So, choose wisely and intentionally, have fun, and play on! Remember, all the world’s a stage.

Post by: Nadia Fike


Read more: 1. Diener, E., et al. (1976). Effects of deindividuation variables on stealing among Halloween trick-or-treaters. Journal of Personality and Soc. Psych, 33(2), 178–183.

2. Hajo, A., Galinsky, A. (2012). Enclothed cognition. J Experimental Soc. Psych, 48(4), 918-925.

3. Slepian, M., et al. (2015). The cognitive consequences of formal clothing. Soc. Psych and Personality Sci, 6(6), 661-668.


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