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Start When the Necktie Squeezes but Doesn’t Choke: The Pros and Cons of the Work Uniform
19 October 2018

When the Necktie Squeezes but Doesn’t Choke: The Pros and Cons of the Work Uniform

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The continuous wearing of the necktie during the workday reduces blood flow to the brain, a limitation that may be a risk factor according to a recent study conducted by doctors at the University Hospital Schleswig-Holstein, in Kiel (Germany). The study once again shines the spotlight on the debate about the advisability of wearing a uniform—more specifically a suit and tie—at work.

This debate acquired special relevance in 2012, when a surprising study by Northwestern University coined the effect known as “enclothed cognition.” According to the study, the clothes we wear can modify our cognitive capacity and influence our way of relating.

As Steve Kassem, an expert at Neuroscience Research Australia, explains to OpenMind: “Enclothed cognition is a phenomenon that has been reported for many years, but has had difficulty defining when and how the psychological changes occur.”

From the lab coat… to the necktie

In the mentioned study, Dr. Adam D. Galinsky and a team from Northwestern University verified that the results of a test of attention and concentration made to a group of volunteers improved significantly when they did the test dressed in a white lab coat. The same improvement was not observed, however, in another group that wore an identical garment that was presented as being a painter’s coat, nor in a third group that did the test with the same white coat in sight, but without putting it on.

The researchers explained these results with a double effect. “The enclothed cognition depends on both the symbolic meaning and the physical experience of wearing the clothes,” explains Kassem. This symbolic meaning refers to the values, attributes and abilities that are usually assigned to those who wear it habitually. In the specific case of the study, doctors tend to be seen as people with a high capacity for attention, necessary to identify a disease from the symptoms, while painters are not presupposed that same capacity.

Northwestern University verified that the attention improved in a group of volunteers when they dressed in a white lab coat. Credit: George Hodan

On the tails of that 2012 study, another investigation two years later showed that the negotiating capacity of a group of volunteers increased when they changed from wearing their usual clothes to negotiating while wearing a suit. In contrast, in those participants accustomed to dressing formally, their negotiating capacity was diminished by dressing more casually. In addition, a physiological reaction was observed in the levels of testosterone, which increased and decreased respectively in both study groups.

In addition to this research, in 2015 a new study proved that wearing formal attire—the suit and tie associated with businessmen—increased negotiation skills and the ability to plan long-term strategies. Those responsible for the research linked these results with the feeling of power and security that we identify with people who wear suits, and therefore dressing in one imparted those sensations to the participants in the experiment.

Health risks

n view of these results, one might ask why there is a debate. This arises because, in contrast to the intellectual or cognitive advantages derived from the use of a uniform, a series of studies have raised the problems, risks or physiological damage that it entails. “Any physiological risks associated with uniforms would be a result of the actual uniform itself, and not the effects of the “enclothed cognition,” clarifies Kassem.

With respect to the use and abuse of the necktie, the study that the University Hospital Schleswig-Holstein presented in June 2018 provides the latest evidence. Using magnetic resonance to monitor a group of 30 volunteers with an average age of 24.6 years and in perfect health, it was found that the blood flow that reached the brain decreased as a result of the pressure exerted by the patient’s garment on the blood vessels of the neck. The decrease was 7.5% in the volunteers with the necktie tightened and 5.7% in those who wore it loosened.

The continuous wearing of the necktie reduces blood flow to the brain. Credit: Markusspiske

As the authors of the study emphasise, the effects of decreased blood flow are usually negligible until they reach 10%, when they begin to manifest in the form of headache, dizziness and/or nausea. However, an even smaller decrease, such as that produced by a necktie, can be a risk factor in smokers, the elderly or people with high blood pressure.

Glaucoma and infections

Prior to the 2018 study, other research had already looked at the risks associated with the wearing of neckties. The 2003 pioneering study was carried out by the New York Eye and Ear Infirmary, which postulated that the sustained use of this garment was linked to a slight increase in intraocular pressure—a consequence of the pressure on the episcleral veins that start from the outermost layer of the sclera—which constituted a risk for the development and progression of glaucoma. After studying 40 men—half healthy and half with glaucoma—they found that after wearing a lightly-tightened necktie for three minutes, 60% of glaucoma patients and 70% of healthy patients had significant increases in ocular pressure, which fell again as soon as they removed the garment.

A lightly-tightened necktie increases ocular pressure.  Credit: Nenad Rakicevic

On the other hand, an extensive 2009 study by the UK National Health Service showed the massive presence of pathogens in neckties and doctors’ lab coats, as they are two highly exposed garments that are not washed frequently, thus bearing the risk of infection and contagiousness.

Scientists are still far from reaching a definitive answer or even a consensus regarding the advisability or not of wearing a necktie. Moreover, both those responsible for the aforementioned research and the experts on the matter stress the need to carry out and expand these studies.

In the meantime, it wouldn’t hurt to extend the concept of “enclothed cognition” to “enclothed cognition and (medical) condition”, because dressing in a uniform or a suit doesn’t just have cognitive effects, but also health ones.

Miguel Barral


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