CSUN students’ research shows effects of dressing down

Katie Donahue

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Photo Illustration by Paul Kingsley / Photo Editor

A  study shows students follow directions more accurately when authority figures dress casual.

CSUN alumna Anastacia “Stacey” Damon was the lead author on the psychology study, “Dressed to Influence: The Effects of Experimenter Dress on Participant Compliance.”

Damon, of Santa Clarita, found that more errors were made by students when they followed directions given by the same researcher wearing a professional outfit.

Damon, 24, graduated from CSUN in May with a bachelor’s degree in psychology.

Dr. Robert Youmans, CSUN psychology professor, was the faculty adviser to the study.

“It’s really rare for undergraduates to be published,” Youmans said.

The idea for the research stemmed from a class project in Youmans’ 2008 experimental psychology course, Psychology 321, Damon said.

Damon, along with fellow student researchers in the study, were interested in studying what factors influenced a participant’s ability to follow directions.

The group videotaped a student actor, who played a researcher, giving directions twice, once in professional dress and another in more casual clothing.

The 67 CSUN students that participated in the study saw only one of the aforementioned videos in a controlled setting, and their responses to fast questions gauged the level to which they followed directions accurately.

The participants, all between the ages of 18 and 27, were taken from a pool of students enrolled in 100 and 200 level psychology courses, Damon said.

“We felt it was really important to use college students because a lot of studies use them as participants,” Damon said. “We wanted to show that dress style can manipulate how people follow directions and how we listen.”

Some researchers wear lab coats when conducting an experiment with participants, while others may opt for a tie, Youmans said.

One element that most psychology experiments have in common is that they tend to give fast, complicated directions, he added.

“You probably don’t follow complicated instructions as well when you’re nervous,” Youmans said. “The professionally dressed person might be more authoritative.”

The results can also be explained by the fact that being part of an experiment as a student can be intimidating, and following directions from someone dressed casually like them may relieve some anxiety, Damon said.

“Having a more relaxed environment allows for more listening and directions are being followed more accurately,” she said.

These findings could be used as a tool for employers when it comes to achieving optimal employee performance.

“Some companies do this intuitively already,” Youmans said.

Allowing casual dress on days when a team building exercise takes place is one way it may be beneficial, he said.

Casual dress may also be helpful when new, complicated ideas are being introduced, he added.

“It’s not so much about dressing down but dressing similar to the population you’re studying,” Youmans said.

Youmans has used the results from these findings in his own classroom.

“I intentionally try to dress down early in the semester to reduce the anxiety level a bit,” he said.

Damon has also found the findings applicable to her own life.

“There have been times where I’ve gone to Dr. Youmans’ class and addressed them regarding research and have dressed more casually,” she said, adding that it also has made her aware of how she and other researchers will dress in the future when they conduct experiments.

Jaime Lee-Davis, who was also involved in the study,  has used what she learned in her current job with children at a private school.

Lee-Davis graduated in 2009 with a degree in psychology and a minor in business administration. She is required to wear jeans and a T-shirt, and the children call her by her first name.

While Lee-Davis, 28, was initially worried about maintaining authority in a classroom, she said she was pleasantly surprised by her own findings.

“I find that the respect is earned,” said Lee-Davis of Long Beach.  “It’s not a fa?ade of ‘Look at how I dress.’ It makes you work harder. It supports my study because kids come to you and feel more comfortable with you.”

More research must be done before an overriding assumption can be made about just how casual dress can go, Lee-Davis said.

“As far as dress goes, society has become a little more relaxed, but it depends on the situation,” Damon said.

Implications of the research aside, Damon said she found the road to publication was anything but easy. Though she was denied by the first journal she approached, she found success on her second attempt.

“I really wanted this and I thought it was a really cool experiment and I thought students would enjoy reading it,” Damon said.