My father-in-law flew to Sao Paulo, Brazil, in order to deliver a medical lecture. He drove with a friend through the city streets, and was shocked by what he saw: People sat on the side of the street, covered in dirt, with tattered clothing and no shoes. Their poverty was so extreme that they were not begging for money, but rather for food.
Oddly enough, on the very same street, several Lamborghinis drove by. There seemed to be extreme levels of poverty and wealth in the same neighborhood. My father-in-law curiously asked, “What’s going on here? How can there be Lamborghinis and starvation within such close proximity?”
His friend replied, “Oh that! Yeah, those are not really Lamborghinis. See, here in Sao Paulo, people take the shell of a Lamborghini car and jack it up with a run-down Beetle engine.”
I listened to this story in shock. Is this what our world has come to?
And then I started to wonder: Why does our society give so much credence to externals?
Truthfully, to some extent we all do the “Lamborghini trick.” We carry a mask around with us at all times. Sometimes who we are and what we want to portray do not match one hundred percent of the time. However, this image we project matters greatly to us.
Suppose you are driving and approach an intersection. A policeman stands in the middle trying to help direct traffic by moving his arms while shouting out orders. Now imagine seeing the same man in that intersection with arm movements and calling out directions, yet he is wearing a pirate costume. As a driver, we would certainly relate differently to those two people.
Our clothing – and our image – make a statement. It is clear that we judge others based on their exteriors. In the previous example, we related to the policeman differently based on his garb. However, there seems to be evidence that this policeman himself would view himself differently depending on his outfit. Yes, new research indicates that we also judge ourselves based on our own exterior.
This concept, termed enclothed cognition, states that our exteriors can affect our behavior and feelings.
A student of mine once noted, “I feel better when I get dressed up, wear heels, and have my hair blown out. I even act friendlier towards others because I feel more confident about myself.” We all can relate to this idea that taking care of ourselves, and putting effort into our exterior, brings positive inner feelings.
Does this mean we will also feel better about ourselves when driving a nicer car – a Lamborghini? What if we are fooling others to get that type of status update?
The car upgrade affects how people view us, but if we are fooling others in the process, it will not cause us to feel positive inside. Even if we feel an initial boost, at some point, that dissonance will no longer sit well within us.
A fascinating study done at Northwestern University asked two groups of people to participate in a brain teaser. Half the participants were wearing a lab coat, and were told it was the coat of a doctor. The other group wore their regular clothing with no white coat at all. The participants who wore the lab coat preformed twice as well than the control group.
Our external garb can affect how we behave, feel, and even perform. There are numerous studies that back up the results of this study, including the fact that the success rate of students who “dress up” for SATs is higher.
Here is the kicker: A subsequent study was done at Northwestern: Again there were two groups participating in brain teasers, and this time both wore lab coats. One group thought they were wearing a doctor’s coat, while the other group was told they were wearing a painting smock. In this study only the “Dr. Coats” did better.
In essence, this study proves that while our external clothing matters, it is the internal feeling about what we are wearing that matters just as much, if not more.
There are two aspects to what controls how we feel about our image: The outside and the inside. The exterior is important, but only when the inside matches.
If we walk around sporting a run-down Beetle engine inside a Lamborghini shell, that dissonance can create an internal anxiety. We are forced to carry a heavy burden when our inner and outer selves are not congruent, for keeping up a façade is exhausting, and we are haunted by our fear of discovery.
A student of mine, Amy, told me a story from when she was in high school. She had been using drugs and alcohol recreationally while her parents remained none the wiser. Amy’s therapist at the time told her that although Amy on one level was terrified of her parents finding out, she subconsciously wanted her parents to know what she was up to. The constant need for lies and alibis weighed down her down heavily. In fact, after time, her parents did realize, and even though Amy had to deal with the consequences of her actions, she felt relieved. She was finally able to be the authentic person she wanted to be.
When a person is dating and feels they cannot be themselves, it hinders the process of developing a deep and meaningful relationship. Sometimes people feel that they must live beyond their means in order to impress others, or keep up with the “Joneses.” This constant sporting of a mask is not sustainable, and makes it challenging to feel authentic overall.
External improvements definitely raise our confidence levels, and should be encouraged. However, the only way to achieve lasting results is when we work on our inside, as well. It is when we toil to make sure our insides are congruent with our outside that we will feel like the shining individuals that we truly are.