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Recent research from Harvard Business School supports the later assumption. In a paper in the Journal of Consumer Research, HBS associate professor Francesca Gino shows that nonconforming behaviors lead observers to assume higher status in the observed.
In a series of studies, Gino and her team observed a positive reaction to people who wore athletic clothes to an upscale boutique or red sneakers in a professional setting.
"Nonconforming behaviors, as costly and visible signals, can act as a particular form of conspicuous consumption and lead to positive inferences of status and competence in the eyes of others," the researchers write. "A series of studies demonstrates that people confer higher status and competence to nonconforming rather than conforming individuals. These positive inferences derived from signals of nonconformity are mediated by perceived autonomy and moderated by individual differences in need for uniqueness in the observers."
Jena McGregor at The Washington Post compares these findings with some analysts' negative reactions to Facebook CEO Mark Zuckerberg's typically casual attire at a meeting of investors prior to his company going public. According to the study, Zuckerberg's hoodie might actually confer status upon him, making him more respected than he would be if he shed his relaxed image and put on a suit.
For those of us tempted to put on our gym clothes and seek status in comfort, McGregor offers a word of warning:
"Will wearing red sneakers in a buttoned-up workplace give you more clout? Maybe, but it probably depends on the prominence of the place you're employed and whether your colleagues already know you well."
If you're not already Mark Zuckerberg, in other words, blowing up the company dress code might not get you a promotion.
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