Sunday, September 4, 2016

The magical lab coat

With her fingers moving quickly, the 5th year PHD student unbuttoned the white lab coat hanging on the front of a row of coats.  She was part of the organizing committee, getting the long coat ready for the 2nd year PHD student who was now walking up the stage to receive it from her Program Director.  The coat had the blue Hopkins logo, embroidered along with the name of the student.  Behind her, the stage screen displayed a slide with her brief history, undergraduate degree in Biomedical Engineering from Duke, now studying cancer dynamics at Hopkins.  As the Program Director helped the 2nd year student put on her new lab coat, one of her friends let out a shout, the crowd started to clap, and then she turned around to face them.  She was beaming, culmination of all those years of study, now a scientist.

We were in Hurd Hall, a long and deeply sloped auditorium at Johns Hopkins School of Medicine, walls paneled with dark wood and paintings of long-gone professors in their regalia.  Earlier, the Dean had welcomed the parents and students.  He had motioned all to stand up, and then asked those who had traveled farther than a 1000 miles to keep standing.  About two dozen parents and friends remained erect.  He then slowly increased the distance threshold, until the last two pairs of parents standing were recognized: they had traveled from Egypt and Spain to see their child be “coated”.

The “coating ceremony” is a once a year, end of summer affair where Hopkins presents a lab coat to the PHD students who have successfully completed their final exam: the Doctoral Board Oral (DBO).  The PHD candidates complete their courses in their first or second year of study, and then take the DBO, an exam where 5 professors from diverse fields gather to make one last measure of the student. 

It’s a nerve-racking event. The student studies for a month, knowing who will be on the board but having no idea about the questions that they will ask.  On judgment day, she stands in front of them and answers questions ranging from mathematics to cellular biology, anatomy to engineering.  Having taken part in many of these exams, I have often wondered whether I could answer all the questions that are asked.  I try to remember how I felt when some 25 years ago it was me who stood and puzzled with the seemingly random questions.  I was scared; knowing that no matter what my previous grades, failure of this exam meant that I would not be allowed to continue.  It meant that I was done, the dream of becoming a scientist denied.  And so I try to be fair --- it’s quite hard to think while under such pressure, your life-long dreams on the line.

The students have taken exams all their lives, and making it this far means that they have excelled in all of them.  The DBO is the last exam that they will ever take.  The coating ceremony recognizes this momentous passage, and with this last hurdle crossed, now a scientist.

The surprising benefits of wearing a lab coat
Richard Feynman, the 20th century iconic physicist, had a father who was a uniform salesman.  In his memoirs, he recalls his father reading a newspaper article about the Pope, and then turning to Richard to say that: “See this man with his fancy clothes?  Underneath that uniform he’s just a man like you and me.”  Richard learned that uniforms don’t matter.  What matters is the person underneath.

But research in social psychology would suggest otherwise: there is something about the clothes that we wear.  Our clothes not only affect the perception of people that we interact with, but surprisingly, our clothes also affect how we behave. 

Experiments have demonstrated that a woman who wears a masculine outfit is more likely to get the job following an interview (Forsythe 1990), and a woman who wears a sexy outfit is viewed by interviewer to be less competent (Glick et al. 2005).  So not surprisingly, the clothes that we wear influence how others perceive us. 

However, what we wear also affects our own actions, perhaps because we are affected by the identity that goes along with the clothing.  For example, volunteers who were asked to wear a large hood or a cape covering their heads were more likely to behave unkindly, administering electric shocks to others (Zimbardo 1969).  In contrast, when volunteers were asked to wear a nurse’s uniform, they behaved more kindly, less willing to administer those shocks (Johnson and Downing 1979). 

This would suggest that wearing a uniform brings along with it a framework of stereotypical behavior.  That framework may act as a prior belief about how one is supposed to behave.  I wondered, do lab coats have such a power?

Hajo Adam and Adam Glinsky (2012) explored this question at Northwestern University.  In their first experiment, they recruited 74 undergraduate students and assigned them randomly to one of 3 groups: a group that was presented with a white lab coat and told that it was a doctor’s coat and asked to wear it; another group that was presented with the same coat but told that it was a painter’s coat and asked to wear it; and a final group that was shown the lab coat on a table but not asked to wear it.  Each volunteer then performed a task where on each trial they saw a pair of nearly identical pictures and were told that there were 4 differences in the pictures. 

They had to find the differences as quickly as they could.  The measured variable was the number of differences that they could find.  Each volunteer viewed four pairs of pictures.  The students who were told that they were wearing a doctor’s coat did significantly better than the other two groups.

The authors repeated the experiment with 99 other undergraduates who were assigned to the same 3 groups, but now they slightly changed the setup for one of the groups.  For the group that did not wear the coat, they had them sit down so that the doctor’s coat was directly in front of them.  The results of this experiment confirmed that the group that wore the doctor’s coat again performed better than the other groups, but the group that had the doctor’s coat in view did better than the group that wore the painter’s coat.

These results are surprising because the task is a measure of the ability to focus attention on visual stimuli; something that one might imagine is independent of the clothing that you are wearing.  But attention is a highly “top-down”, cognitive process that depends greatly on the state of the brain.  For an undergraduate, perhaps the physical experience of wearing a white doctor’s coat moves this state along a positive aspect of the reward dimension, whereas wearing a white painter’s coat does not.

As I left the coating ceremony, I realized that in addition to being a lovely occasion to celebrate completion of a milestone, our gathering had inadvertently provided each student a physical symbol of an ideal.  How appropriate that the students would be wearing the coat just as they are starting on their quest to discover secrets of nature. 

Adam, H. and Galinsky A.D. (2012) Enclothed cognition.  Journal of Experimental Social Psychology.
Forsythe, S.M. (1990) Effect of applicant’s clothing on interviewer’s decision to hire.  Journal of Applied Social Psychology 20:1579-1595.
Glick, S., Larsen S., Johnson, C. and Branstiter, H. (2005) Evaluation of sexy women in low and high-status jobs.  Psychology of Women Quarlterly 29:389-395.
Johnson, R.D. and Downing, L.L. (1979) Deindividuation and valence of cues: effects on prosocial and antisocial behavior.  Journal of Personality and Social Psychology 37:1532-1538.
Zimbardo, P.G. (1969) The human choice: individuation, reason, and order vs. deindividuation, impulse and chaos.  In W.J. Arnold & D. Levine (Eds.) Nebraska symposium on motivation, 17:237-307.


  1. It seems to me like a jhu phd candidacy coronation. I like the “See this man with his fancy clothes? Underneath that uniform he’s just a man like you and me.” as well as the "but surprisingly, our clothes also affect how we behave."
    Interesting article.

  2. I literally spent hours trying to find scrubs for a medical mission trip I have coming up. Love the color of figs scrubs. Already placed an order to buy two sets.