I enter the courtroom to see the defendant sitting at the defense table in a suit and tie, clean-shaven, wearing non-prescription attitude glasses. He looks like Clark Kent in Superman. The jury might find it hard to believe this is the same man portrayed in his booking photo from the night of the crime. He is taking advantage of the reality that as objective as we would like to think we are, we still judge books by their covers.
I have prosecuted many different types of manipulators who take advantage of the ability to dress the part, knowing that appearances can be deceiving. The tendency to read a book by its cover is corroborated by both experience, and research.
Status Through Style
Research by Rob M.A. Nelissen and Marijn H.C. Meijers aptly entitled “Social benefits of luxury brands as costly signals of wealth and status” (2011) showed that people treat individuals wearing luxury brands better than those without such brand labels.[i] In fact, they showed the people treat the same person better when he or she wears the same clothing—one with a brand label, the other without.
Other research fuels the perception from the perspective of the individual donning different clothes. Hajo Adam and Adam D. Galinsky in “Enclothed Cognition” demonstrated that wearing certain clothing causes people to assume the costumed role.[ii]
The article of clothing used in their research was a lab coat, which is associated with carefulness, and attention. Sure enough, they found that wearing a lab coat increased selective attention. But it apparently depended on what type of coat it was. Wearing a coat described as a doctor´s coat increased sustained attention as compared to wearing a coat described as a painter´s coat. The researchers concluded that clothes influence the wearer both symbolically and physically—as they are wearing them.
Dressing the Part: When Credibility is a Costume
Source: Image by Olya Adamovich from Pixabay
Research by Hiroshi Kurihara et al. entitled “Importance of physicians’ attire: factors influencing the impression it makes on patients” (2014) revealed that regardless of a doctor´s gender, the most appropriate manner of dress was considered to be a white coat, followed by surgical scrubs.[iii]Younger participants perceived scrubs as more appropriate than their older counterparts.
But does that mean that everyone wearing a white coat or scrubs is a doctor? Consider how you would greet a man wearing scrubs or a lab coat in a dark parking lot at night who asked for your assistance. Would you say, “Good evening doctor, how can I help you?” Obviously, a stranger in a dark parking lot is still a stranger—regardless of attire. Safety is not about paranoia, but perception; but perception can influence reality.
Look Closer: Costume Incorrectness
The case of “Dirty John,” profiled by the Los Angeles Times, illustrates how a doctor´s costume facilitated a dramatic story of love and deception.[iv] Con man John Meehan, masquerading as a freelance anesthesiologist,[v]swept high society single Debra Newell off her feet with his handsome looks and doting, charismatic personality, marrying her within less than two months of their first date.
Claiming to be a physician, he not only dressed the part, he overdressed the part—wearing medical scrubs everywhere. When he dropped the doctor costume, his attire was unflattering, even described by Debra´s mother as “tacky.” Consistent with luxury brand research, Debra took him to Brooks Brothers and dressed him up like a doll, no doubt so others would view him in a better light.
But they didn´t. In fact, even the threads of his doctor costume began to unravel with increased exposure. Debra´s daughter noticed that John´s scrubs were faded and frayed around the heels—more indicative of a receptionist in a medical office than a physician.
Apparently, taking a closer look at surrounding circumstances can permit perception to overcome stereotype before jumping to conclusions.
Viewer Beware: Appearances Can Be Deceiving
In an article entitled “Clothes Make the Con Man,” Sarah Treleaven discusses Dirty John as well as other infamous con artists who exploited the human tendency to judge a book by its cover.[vi] In fact she notes that Dirty John is the exception to the rule; most manipulators carefully select their costume, to ingratiate themselves with their target audience.
Accordingly, because anyone can dress the part, when forming a first impression, consider conversation, setting, and other surrounding circumstances in order to gain a clearer view of the person behind the persona.