Dressing to Impress – the Authority vs. Liking playoffs


Dress Code

By Steve Martin, CMCT

It’s taken you weeks, perhaps even months, of hard work and tenacity but it appears that your efforts are, at last, starting to pay dividends. Your phone rings. It’s the personal assistant of that important and potentially lucrative new client you have been targeting. They are calling to confirm a meeting the following week. You briefly allow yourself a moment of self-congratulation before turning your attention to planning for the appointment. Meetings like this are hard to come by and the chances are you’ll only have one opportunity to make a great impression. You want to come across as a trustworthy and credible communicator, friendly, likeable, approachable and influential.

So in order to do this what exactly should you wear?

For many years persuasion scientists have been studying the effects of clothing on people’s likelihood to be influenced. Social psychologist Leonard Bickman is well known for his studies that demonstrated the powerful sway of the well-attired. Many of his experiments would involve a researcher stopping a passer-by and asking them to comply with a request of sorts. Sometimes the request would be to pick up a piece of discarded litter. On other occasions the request would be to stand on a specific spot by a bus stop. My personal favorite involved asking passers-by to give change for a parking meter to a complete stranger.

In each case Bickman would vary not the requester themselves, but instead what the requester was wearing. On some occasions it would be ordinary casual clothes and at others a uniform including a security guard and even a milkman. Tellingly, in surveys conducted prior to the studies, most participants would dramatically underestimate the influence the uniformed requester would have on their decisions to comply. The results, of course, told a different story with often twice as many people being persuaded to act when the requester wore the security guard uniform.

Other more recent studies have found similar effects. For example, a UK study demonstrated that people were significantly more likely to recall health messages when the healthcare professional had a stethoscope draped over their shoulders than when no stethoscope was present. Interestingly the stethoscope never had to be employed. Rather than acting as an effective instrument to inform the medical professional of a potential condition it instead acted as an effective instrument to inform the patient of the wearer’s credibility and knowledge.

Given that the above cases suggest the automatic influence of a uniformed person, is the suggestion to don a suitably compliance-inducing costume each time you attend a new client meeting? Certainly not. In Influence –Science & Practice Robert Cialdini cites studies where donning a straightforward business suit can have equal effect. In one such experiment 350% more people were willing to follow a man crossing the street against a red light and against the traffic (and, incidentally, against the law) when he wore a suit rather than casual clothes.

It is interesting to note that in all these studies, and others like them, a person’s clothing was primarily influencing behaviour for one very simple reason. No other information existed about the requester’s expertise. The immediate implications are clear. When meeting someone for the first time, it is important to dress at a level that matches one’s true expertise and credentials. Doing so would be using the principle of authority in an ethical and insightful way.

But modern day business meetings are rarely so straightforward. With the advent of different dress codes, from business formal to dress down casual and a myriad of others in between, perhaps it would be more effective to draw on another powerful driver of human decision making – similarities.

Cialdini’s Principle of Liking informs us that another potential route to effective persuasion is to look for and highlight genuine commonalities. What better way of highlighting similarities and minimizing dissimilarities than to find out the dress code of the specific organization and match it on the day of your meeting? But again such an approach is not without its pitfalls. Is one truly being genuine and authentic by matching a dress code that they would not normally choose for themselves? And even if one is genuine and you realise the upside of similarities are there downsides in so far as your authority and credibility could potentially be undermined?

As is often the case in persuasion, a more effective route might be to employ elements of each of the principles. This could mean that where and when it is appropriate we should dress in a reasonably similar style to an influence target but at perhaps one level higher. A neck tie or perhaps a jacket, for example, might be optimal in an office that generally practices a more business casual policy.

As is also often the case, I’m sure that you, the Inside Influence Report reader, will have an opinion of your own. We’d love to hear them. Regardless of what you are wearing!


Bickman, L. (1974) The Power of a Social Uniform. Journal of Applied Social Psychology Volume 4, Pages 47 – 61.

Cialdini, R.B. (2009) Influence –Science & Practice (5th Edition). Allyn & Bacon New York

Castledine, G. (1996) Nursing’s image: It is how you use your stethoscope that counts. British Journal of Nursing Volume 5:882

Lefkowitz, M., Blake, R., & Moulton, J.S Status factors in pedestrian violation of traffic signals. Journal of Abnormal & Social Psychology, Volume 51, 704-706

  • czrswyf

    This topic is completely on target.  I remember I was at my son’s high school wrestling tournament several years ago.  The team captain, a clean-cut, articulate young man, was finished for the day and was donning his outer wear before leaving.  He pulled on slouchy sweat pants, a black oversized hoody sweatshirt, a knit cap and slung a large duffle bag over his shoulder.  When he picked up his battered skateboard and rode away, the transformation was complete; in the matter of two minutes this approachable, cherub-faced teen had become a skater hoodlum and I had to make myself  stop not liking him because I knew he was a nice kid, but he didn’t look like one.  Great subject!

  • Brunno1982

    That is a great point. At the office I work at we dress to a full shit an tie but it is not necessary to wear a jacket. However when we attend conferences or have client visits a Jacket is a must, no skinny ties, and make sure you have a cap toe shoes on as well. It makes a great difference.

    Thanks for the insight.

    • Brunno

      I meant SHIRT and TIE. Sorry for the TYPO

  • http://www.planningpod.com/ Jeff Kear

    Hello Steve –

    Interesting take on this topic. One thing you mentioned that I have found to be effective is to always dress one level higher than your target audience. Although I have not conducted any “statistically significant” study of this, my experiences over the last 20 years in sales and marketing have led me to always dress one level higher. So if my prospective client is a t-shirt and jeans company, I would wear designer jeans, a nice t-shirt and maybe a casual jacket or dapper hat, upping the ante a little. Or if they are more corporate, casual-dress client (khakis and button down shirts), I wear a bit nicer pants than the prospect, a button-down shirt and a jacket.

    This may be anecdotal, but when I dress one level higher, I have found people actually pay more attention to me when I’m talking and are more likely to defer to me and my opinion (and because I work in marketing, there are usually many opinions in the room, quite a few of them staunch but not-so-well informed).

    Put it this way … in my experience, dressing one level higher doesn’t hurt and can only help.

    • Randzman

      I agree with Jeff… dress one notch above them to establish that you respect their time, that you’re there to make a presentation, and to allow them to see themselves in clothing they would also like.

      This seems to be the MAYA principle applied to clothing – most advanced yet acceptable. 

  • Bilriley

    What about for job interviews? Is it ever OK not to wear a suit even if the ocffice dress is very casual?

    • Andy

      I have a friend who is an advertising creative (as the term goes) and runs an advertising agency. He tells me it would be “fatal” to turn up at an interview wearing a suit – creatives just don’t do that and it would imply you weren’t really part of the culture.

  • Pathfinder2020

    ago I was very successful selling advertising to small retail
    operations by discarding the suits worn typically by *salesmen*.
    After reading Dr. Cialdini’s Influence book I suspect I more easily
    established *likeability* through familiarity. By dressing like most
    owners, who typically wore open collared shirts & slacks, I
    became more of an ally than an adversary. Sadly. most *salespeople*
    come off as pushy no-nothings. So by telegraphing I was different I
    gained trust.

  • Barbara Haig

    I’m curious about the Castledine study – couldn’t find it online. Do you have the original article, or has it been updated?

  • http://www.insurancebutler.com/ Chester

    Even though I may dress casually in some routine meetings with clients, if there is money on the line, a jacket and tie is the wardrobe I prefer. If I am dealing with certain types, I will wear the typical pinstriped charcoal suit with red tie. With other folks I may dress it down with a navy suit. Still others a blazer and tie. I agree with other comments that a step up from the client’s style is the way to go. What was not mentioned is the impact of certain other accoutrements such as jewelry, and business tech items such as phones and pads. All these items convey a message. The prospect usually wants  to buy from people they percieve are like themselves. The key word is percieve. We usually percieve that we look a little better than we do!

  • Mike

    I work in the financial industry (money management) and noticed that it is ok to dress down a bit on days like Fridays, or maybe really hot days (i.e. skip the tie), but IF you skip the tie, you must be dressed really well. The shirt, pants, and jacket are ok to look casual, but should look tailored and expensive.

    Clients do judge a book by its cover and they do measure your success by how you dress, even if it registers subconsiously. Therefore, if you dress well and if it looks like your clothes cost a lot of money, it must mean that you are doing well, which means people are dealing with you, and hence the rule of “social proof” kicks in.

    I hope that makes sense.

  • Steve Martin

    Hi Barbara.
    The British Journal of Nursing posts its archives at internurse.com. I have posted a link here to the specific article I cite in this months Inside Influence Report. Hope this helps.


    • Barbara Haig


  • http://www.facebook.com/janschultz02 Janice Hauser Schultz

    Since I have been the owner of my own business, the dress code of “professionalism” has become an issue over the years. This information is excellent to use as a leadership motivational tool for employees to buy into the importance of attire. In our casual western society, dress is often neglected far too often. So maintaining “You can’t tell a book by its cover” is not necessarily true to form. Just remember the past research demonstrating that a uniformed person will influence the individual to push the shock lever more times than others not so officially clad.

  • Robert

    I dress to impress my ideal client which tends to high net worth and professional.  However what your article failed to address was the quality of the clothing.  My dress slacks are a wool blend that I purchase from Nordstroms, that are properly tailored to my waist and length.  My dress shirts are cotton that are professionally laundered and I donate every three months.  If I arrive at a meeting where the dress is causal, I ask If I may ask if I can remove my jacket.  Finally, I rather err on the side of being over dressed than under.  

  • Svengali

    Not only does one dress to impress but also to imply increasing intimacy. The first time it is best to dress formally – perhaps even a 3 piece suit. The next few meetings, progressively – discard waistcoat, slowly the jacket and eventually the tie depending on the level of friendship and relationship intimacy you want to imply and the number of meetings that have taken place.
    A doctor should never dress in a pinstriped 3 piece suit. It indicates he is profiting from the misery of his patients. A white coat and stethoscope (as suggested in the article) are best and generate trust.
    Naturally a banker must look prosperous in a pin striped 3 piece suit, otherwise why would you invest your money with him.
    The general rule is over dress marginally when you need to project authority, and slightly under dress when you want to generate liking and intimacy.

  • Jurek Leon

    Hello Steve, thanks for an interesting article. 

    On the advice of my wife and I have always followed the one level higher than your target audience approach and have found it works well and noticed the occasional difficulty that people (previously hardly known) to the audience can have when they attempt to either blend in or overdress.  In layback Australia where I am based, overdressing particularly with prospective small business clients can have you viewed as an untrustworthy sharp salesman as Pathfinder20 mentions with his retail clients.

    Something that isn’t mentioned in your article is the standard of footwear.  Far too often well dressed people let themselves down with shabby unpolished shoes.  Much of the commentary so far has related to male dress sense, but the footwear issue certainly in Australia and the UK applies equally to women.  I suspect that unconsciously this influences the perception of the audience. I’d love to know if there is any research on this and to hear other’s views.

Subscribe to the
Submit your email below:

vPOP Live & Online

From you’re the comfort of your home or office, explore the psychology behind what drives us as humans and teaches us how to ethically move others in our direction. Click here to register now.

Share Your Thoughts

Help us help others by leaving your comments, insights, and reviews on Amazon.com. This demonstration of “social proof” will benefit all.
Click below to read and leave current reviews on Amazon.com for:

Dr. Robert Cialdini’s Books

Twitter Updates