The impact of clothing colour on impression formation

This study investigated the effect of colour of clothing on impression formation. 50 mixed gender participants were randomly assigned to either a dark clothing or light clothing condition and presented with a classroom scenario and a photo of a boy believed to be responsible for a fight. Participants were then asked a series of Likert scale questions. It was hypothesised that the dark clothing condition (black) would result in a significantly more negative and aggressive impression being formed than in the light clothing condition.

Aggression and negative impression was measured using Likert scales of aggression, honesty, responsibility, justifiability and social adaptability. A very significant difference was found for each of these with the exception of justifiability. Overall dark clothing made a significantly more negative and aggressive impression than light clothing. This suggests that clothing colour does have an impact on impression formation, and that this can be generalised across situations. Further investigation is needed into what aspect of colour has the effect, and into what societal groups the effect penetrates.

This experiment investigated whether the colour of a person’s clothing has an effect on the impression they make on others, in particular whether darker colours, especially black, give a more aggressive impression than lighter colours. This general phenomenon, more widely termed the colour of clothing effect has been widely researched, with findings providing vital information regarding impression formation. It seems that what colour clothes we wear, can greatly affect how others feel, react and even behave towards us as individuals.

One of the main questions asked is why this effect occurs? In reply, perhaps we can draw on associations that colours have developed throughout history. For years the colour black has had several negative associations, such as aggression, evilness and deceit. These characteristics perhaps stem from tags that the colour black has acquired, e.g. from situations such as death, the plague, and a fear of the dark.

As well as perhaps from social groups who wear black, such as the Hell’s Angels, who are often perceived as aggressive, even though this may not be the case. Lighter colours on the other hand, especially white, have more positive associations, such as angelicness, innocence, peace and tranquillity. It is possible that the combination of these factors has caused black to be thought of as an aggressive and/or negative colour to wear, meaning that the actual personality of the person is masked by a strong negative impression that they give.

Research has demonstrated how impression formation can be effected by the primacy effect, that is, as Anderson (1974) states (as cited in these notes ‘The Primacy-Recency Effect’) – ‘people pay more attention to information that is presented when they are first trying to form an impression about someone’ and thus as a consequence, as stated by Luchens, (cited in ‘The Primacy-Recency Effect’) – ‘when later information is discrepant with earlier information, people tend to regard the first information as revealing the REAL person and to explain away later information as not typical’. If this is case then it is possible to comprehend how clothing could have such a significant effect on impression formation, being one of the first things we notice about people.

The black clothing stereotype is the association of black clothing with aggression and deceit and is the main stereotype dealt with by this experiment. Research has greatly investigated the stereotype: for example, Vrij & Akehurst (1997, p.234) found support for the existence of a black clothing stereotype in victims reports of sexual harassment – ‘black clothing resulted in a less reliable and more masculine impression of the victim… participants paid less attention to the victim’s account when she was dressed in black’ and in another study by Vrij (1997, p.47) it was hypothesised that suspects who wore black clothes would be seen as more aggressive than those who wore light-coloured clothes, results indicated strong support for this hypothesis, ‘moreover, the offender dressed in black evoked the most irritation, and the suspect dressed in black made the most guilty impression’.

This research supports the idea that black evokes a more negative impression, research has also looked at whether simply wearing the colour black can make someone more aggressive. For example, Frank (1988) examined whether professional football and ice hockey teams that wear black uniforms are more aggressive than those that wear non-black uniforms. In an analysis of penalty records, teams with black uniforms in both sports ranked near the top of their leagues in penalties throughout the study.

It must be taken into account that the colour of clothing effect is dependent on circumstances: e.g. in funerals, black tie functions – black clothing is unlikely to evoke negative impressions, so why in some situations but not others? Perhaps we are able to recognise context and evaluate people within it? But why then, are we so quick to judge people by what they wear? This experiment may answer some of these questions.

Because of this important observation of the effect of circumstance, choosing the situation from which to investigate the effect was vital in planning this experiment, thus the design chosen is similar to previous research in the field, and is set in a circumstance that is viewed as suitable (school classroom) i.e. it is one that should not be affected by variables such as black actually having an overall positive impression within the situation.

The above research supports existence of the black clothing stereotype and the colour of clothing effect. This experiment looked for further supportive evidence, using a different situation to those demonstrated above, hoping to extend the generalisability of this stereotype in social settings. A classroom scenario and a photo of a boy, was used to assess whether a more negative impression would be formed of the boy when wearing a black coloured shirt compared to a light coloured one.

As a result of previous theory and research the main hypothesis for this experiment is that John will make a significantly more aggressive and negative impression in the dark clothing condition in comparison to the light clothing condition, indicated by participants scores on a series of Likert scale questions.

METHOD

Design This experiment used a between-subjects design, participants either took part in condition one (dark clothing) or condition two (light clothing). There was one independent variable; the colour of clothing visible in the photo of the boy. Participants were randomly assigned to one of the two conditions (25 to the ‘black’ condition and 25 to the ‘light’ condition). The dependent variables examined how participants viewed the boy’s account, and consisted of five items: honesty, aggressiveness, retaliation/justifiableness, responsibility and social adeptness each with/accompanied by one question: ‘John is telling the truth’, ‘John is disruptive/aggressive outside the school environment’, ‘John’s retaliation was necessary’, ‘John is somewhat responsible for the fight’, and ‘John usually gets on well with his peers’. Answers could be entered on 7 point Likert scales: ranging from Strongly Disagree (1) to Strongly Agree (7).

Participants Participants were obtained using an opportunity sample. A total of 50 took part in the experiment, consisting of 25 Males and 25 Females, with an age range of 34 years. Although there is no theory present that there would be a gender difference in impression formation, gender distribution was made even to control for any possible effects that gender may have had. Materials A picture of a young boy named John was provided in both conditions. In the first condition John wore a black t-shirt, in the second condition John wore a light coloured t-shirt, and these pictures were provided alongside a scenario.

A five question questionnaire was also provided, consisting of seven point Likert scales. Procedure  Participants were asked to participate in a study about impression formation and given an informed consent form, if they gave their consent they were provided with a classroom scenario and a photo of the boy, with the colour of his shirt being either black or light depending on which condition they were in.

They were asked to read the scenario thoroughly, which stated that the boy had been accused of being involved in a fight. Participants were then presented with the questionnaire and asked to answer each question in response to the scenario they had just read, questions were based on the boy’s honesty, reliableness, justifiableness, social skills and aggressiveness. Each question was assessed using a seven point Likert scale (1 being strongly agree and 7 being strongly disagree). Participants were then debriefed.

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