You Are What You Wear

July 27, 2011 by · 4 Comments
Filed under: Education Matters, Social Brain 

There was an interesting story in the Guardian yesterday about a new uniform system being used at a school in Greenwich. According to the article, after re-opening in May this year the secondary school in south London has decided to divide it’s teaching into three “mini-schools” within the larger establishment, each containing 450 pupils. Upon entering the school at 11 years old the children are separated according to their ability and placed in the relevant sub-school.

What’s interesting in this story is not just the physical separation that is taking place in one school, but that the children’s uniform is also being “colour-coded” according to their different ability. The brightest students going to the top school wear purple badges, blazers and ties, while those in the lower two schools wear either red or blue. Despite their classes being separate and their interaction fairly minimal, there is a clear visual representation of ability that all of the students seem acutely aware of.

There is a long-running debate about mixed-ability schools vs. those that stream. Many would argue, based on the experience of the Finnish model of schooling, that within mixed-ability classes low achieving students are effectively “pulled up” academically by their peers. On the other hand, the Headmaster of this school in question believes that streaming based on ability allows for more tailored teaching to the different needs of students. It is also a way for the school to attract pupils from middle class backgrounds, where parents are usually more discerning about who their children are taught alongside.

This is obviously an on-going and contentious area of debate. Rather than delving into the merits of either model it might be more interesting to consider the more nuanced impact of separation through uniform and images, not just spaces. I’m not referring to the phenomenon that sees football teams in red more successful than those in other colours (although there is some good research highlighted recently by Jonah Lehrer on the impact of colour schemes on worker productivity and imagination).

Instead, what is more interesting is how stereotypes can be engendered through brands and images, so much so that what people wear effects how we unconsciously react to them. This is illustrated in a recent study by Rob Nelissen and Marijn Meijers of Tilburg University in Holland. In their first experiment, participants were shown pictures of men wearing polo shirts which were digitally altered to show either a luxury logo or no logo at all. When asked to score each image, participants rated those with a luxury logo-bearing shirt a much higher ‘status’ than those without. Their experiments also showed that brands had an impact on how people actually responded to others. In one experiment, for instance, it was shown that people wearing brands were much more likely to be able to solicit donations as they collected for charity, bringing in twice as much as those wearing no branding.

To return to the colour-coded uniform, if one colour signals ‘quality’ could this effect how teachers view their students and how they judge and react to them? This might be seen through activities that depend largely on automatic responses, for instance the level of trust they put in students or even the grades they give them. Just from anecdotal evidence this seems to be the case. I once knew of somebody at school who would occasionally write essays for other students, based on their own essay but just slightly reworded. She would usually receive A grades while the people she wrote for would be awarded C and D grades, despite being practically the same pieces of work. And all this was done without the need for visual prompts which presumably would have led to even poorer grades.

In addition to this, another interesting and probably more important potential effect of a colour-coded uniform is that of the self-fulfilling negative stereotype. This refers to the idea that people will live up to the prevailing image that is set out for them, normally by others and the wider cultural milieu. A few months ago the Stumbling and Mumbling blog cited a new paper by Dan Ariely showing the placebo effect that brands can have. In Ariely’s experiment, volunteers were asked to complete the menial task of reading out a list of words whilst looking into a bright light and wearing sunglasses. The sunglasses were the same except that they were branded differently, one being Ray-Bans and the other being the cheaper Mango brand. In the end, those wearing the Ray-Bans made half as many mistakes as those wearing the Mango sunglasses; their superiority, it seemed, was self-fulfilling.

Might the same be true for children wearing uniforms highlighting their academic superiority? The belief of high academic ability, propagated by the uniform, could be self-fulfilling. Conversely, children reminded of their low academic ability through the red and blue badges, blazers and ties might live up to their own negative stereotypes.

Of course, most of this is for the moment just speculation, and the recent Ofsted inspection for the school shows that whatever they are doing is having promising results. But that said, it’s always worth bearing in mind the impact that these kind of seemingly trivial changes can have on not just how people perceive others, but how people perceive themselves.