The Brain Judges, So Dress for Success

Don’t they look sharp?

Neil Patel posted today on the importance of dressing for success. This is one of those pieces of advice we hear, but maybe don’t follow. Maybe we don’t follow it because we’re rebellious. Maybe it’s because we operate from that particular morality that tells us it’s not the packaging, it’s what’s inside, dammit! Maybe our clothing budget is slim and we accept that we’ll just have to work harder to wow our audience with our intellect or wit or humor. Maybe we just prefer comfort over being “buttoned up”.

But here’s the science.

Our brain is wired for “first impressions”. Literally wired to pass judgment and assess others based on only a little bit of information, and no matter how conscious we are about trying to look beyond appearances, we can’t stop our brains from engaging in this unconscious, rapid processing by which we sort people. And once it’s done, it’s hard to undo. This “halo effect” carries over into what we think about a person even after we’ve been given more information.

How we dress matters in how the brains of our prospects will categorize us. It will affect how much they’re willing to pay, how they judge the work we deliver later, and how they treat us throughout the entire process. Why settle for anything less than what we deserve by failing to accept the importance of our appearance?

Don’t Fret, You Can Still Wear T-Shirts

The good news is that this halo effect works in your favor once you’ve made a good first impression. If you dress for success in your first dealings with people, AND generally manage to give a good first impression otherwise, this will carry over so that when you later want to dress-down it won’t hurt your reputation. So, no, you won’t be a prisoner of the suit forever. (Read all of Neil Patel’s post to see this in action.)

Think in Terms of Harmony to Quell Your Inner Rebel

Still feel like dressing up is somehow a compromise of your inner rebel? That it’s shallow or fake? That you shouldn’t be judged by your clothing? Many years ago I heard an interview on Fresh Air with a teacher. Somehow it came up in the interview that this guy always dressed so well, and why did he do that? I can’t remember his reply word for word, but essentially he expressed that he believed that dressing well allowed everyone else to feel at ease – it created a certain harmony and reduced friction so that the more important work could be gotten to more quickly.

That stuck with me. What a good way to think about it. So if you want to do good work, dressing for success is just one way to remove obstacles from your path.

What do you think?


  1. Amy says

    I think a lot of what “dressing for success” means depends on context and culture, and more formal is not necessarily always better. For example, someone wearing a suit to a neighborhood barbeque to make a good first impression on new neighbors is likely to make people feel uneasy and make a bad impression instead. But even in a business context, it depends. Here in Silicon Valley, suits are appropriate for marketing and sales people, but dress is notoriously casual technical fields. Wearing a suit, even to an interview, can actually be seen as a sign of technical incompetence or insecurity. I’ve found it’s always helpful to check in and find out what is expected in a particular context and culture.

    • says

      Indeed, context is important to consider. I was focusing on Neil Patel’s advice to “dress for success” in business suits, but whatever it is that’s going to convey what needs to be conveyed in a given context is what’s important. 

  2. says

    I have read your stuff before and youre just too awesome. I love what youve got here, love what youre saying and the way you say it. You make it entertaining and you still manage to keep it smart.

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