The Scientific Case for Wearing Jeans to Work

Vindication for the hipster: A nonconformist image projects competence and high status, research finds.

National Journal
Brian Resnick
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Brian Resnick
Feb. 13, 2014, midnight

We mock them, the hip­sters. We mock them in their cof­fee shops, as they sip hand-poured brews, while they wear cutoff over­alls and bright mi­cro-plaid-prin­ted shirts.

We poke fun at their iron­ic love of ob­sol­ete fads, like vinyl, mus­taches, fixed-gear bikes. We mock them be­cause they don’t con­form. But per­haps, deep un­der­neath all that mock­ing, we ac­tu­ally re­spect the hip­ster.

A re­search pa­per from the Har­vard Busi­ness School finds that stand­ing out a little can “lead to in­fer­ence of en­hanced status and com­pet­ence in the eyes of oth­ers.” In oth­er words, hip­ster non­con­form­ity can work in the work­place.

It’s a re­sponse to what re­search­ers call “the red sneak­er ef­fect.” Mark Zuck­er­berg is an ob­vi­ous ex­ample here. He runs the world’s most pop­u­lar so­cial-net­work­ing site and has made bil­lions, but he of­ten wears hood­ies. When Mi­crosoft an­nounced its new CEO last week, the com­pany pub­lished pho­tos of him look­ing real cas­u­al wear­ing a T-shirt and thick-rimmed glasses. Too cool (or more sub­lim­in­ally, too power­ful) to care.

Silvia Bellezza, the lead au­thor on the pa­per, no­ticed a sim­il­ar trend in her aca­dem­ic circles. “At aca­dem­ic con­fer­ences, the big-shot pro­fess­ors would be the ones dressed very cas­u­ally,” she says. “It star­ted as a bit of a joke — we were mak­ing fun of this fact. But as a mat­ter of fact, the people who en­joy high status in so­ci­ety will tend to dis­respect rules more than people who are at the bot­tom of it.”

What she wanted to know is if, in turn, oth­ers come to per­ceive slight non­con­form­it­ies in dress as a mark­er of high status, wheth­er it’s war­ran­ted or not.

And they do. In one study, par­ti­cipants awar­ded pro­fess­ors who were un­shaven and wore T-shirts while teach­ing as hav­ing high­er aca­dem­ic status. In an­oth­er, a sample of re­tail as­sist­ants in Mil­an rated shop­pers at high-end boutiques who dressed in cas­u­al clothes as be­ing more likely to be a celebrity than those who dressed el­eg­antly.

“What we find is that these in­fer­ences of status and per­form­ance are driv­en by an at­tri­bu­tion of autonomy,” Bellezza ex­plains, “the idea that the per­son is able to dic­tate her own laws. She has her own rules.”

But like the laws of grav­ity and time, the laws of non­con­form­ity are re­l­at­ive. Here are the con­di­tions in which the non­con­form­ity ef­fect is max­im­ized.

1. Those who value ori­gin­al­ity are more likely to rate oth­ers more highly for be­ing ori­gin­al. If your em­ploy­er val­ues uni­forms, you’re not go­ing to im­press him or her with a cre­at­ive twist.

2. The per­ceiv­er has to be fa­mil­i­ar with the con­text of the situ­ation. You have to know the norm to spot a de­vi­ation from it.

3. The hip­ster­i­ness has to ap­pear in­ten­tion­al. No one wants to be per­ceived as be­ing ob­li­vi­ous to fash­ion trends. In an­oth­er study, par­ti­cipants were asked to ima­gine a per­son wear­ing a red bow tie to a black-tie event. In the con­di­tion in which the par­ti­cipants were told he didn’t mean to wear the red tie, the ef­fect was at­ten­u­ated.

And 4. Bellezza the­or­izes that the ef­fect would be can­celed out in a group of non­con­form­ists. “If you were to go in a cre­at­ive agency in which be­ing a non­con­form­ist is the norm, then be­ing non­con­form­ing would mean wear­ing a tie,” she says. (Ed­it­or’s note: Na­tion­al Journ­al col­leagues, take note of this.

The re­search­ers were study­ing slight de­vi­ations from the norm. Like de­cid­ing not to wear a tie in a set­ting in which it’s ex­pec­ted, but still wear­ing a buttoned-down shirt and pants. Or wear­ing a very loud col­or. “Go­ing to class bare­foot, wear­ing a tie around your head, we are not look­ing at that,” she says. So there may be a threshold after which “cool and ori­gin­al” turns in­to just look­ing like a fool.

And there are still risks in break­ing the mold. A 2008 pa­per in the Journ­al of Per­son­al­ity and So­cial Psy­cho­logy con­cluded, “In­di­vidu­als who formed over­in­flated per­cep­tions of their status were liked less by oth­ers and rated as more lonely and ali­en­ated.” The au­thors said this is due in part to be­ing per­ceived as dis­rupt­ive to the group.

Strik­ing a bal­ance, it seems, is the crux of the suc­cess­ful hip­ster: slightly ori­gin­al, but not en­tirely grat­ing.

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