How Wearing a Police Uniform Alters One’s Perceptions

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New research puts a sartorial spin on the psychology of profiling.

By Tom Jacobs


(Photo: Mario Tama/Getty Images)

Did you notice that suspicious-looking guy hanging around the office parking lot last night? The one in the hoodie?

New Canadian research reports the answer may depend, in part, on what you were wearing.

In a series of experiments, university undergraduates paid more attention to potentially threatening figures — specifically, guys wearing hoodies — if the students were wearing a police-style uniform.

The results suggest the mere act of dressing up as a cop “may induce a kind of ‘status profiling,’ in which individuals from low-status groups become salient and capture attention,” write McMaster University psychologists Ciro Civile and Sukhvinder Obhi.

“Given that attention shapes how we experience the world, attentional biases towards certain groups of people can be problematic,” Obhi said in announcing the results.

The study is the latest to explore “enclothed cognition” — the concept that wearing clothing that has specific mental and emotional associations affects our thoughts and actions. A 2012 study found wearing a white lab coat, which symbolizes a scientific mindset, improved people’s performance on tests requiring close, sustained attention.

To see if putting on a police uniform changes the way the brain processes information, the Canadian researchers conducted three studies. The first featured 28 university students, half of whom wore a mechanic’s coveralls, while the others wore a law-enforcement-style uniform, including a cap, shirt, and jacket imprinted with the word “police.”

All then took a 64-round test in which they were instructed to indicate whether a circle or a square had just popped up on a computer screen. The shape was always accompanied by one of four “distractor images”: a white face, a black face, a man wearing a suit, or a man in a hoodie.

The researchers found participants who wore the police uniform — but not those in the coveralls — were slower to categorizing the shape when a photograph of the hooded man shared the screen. This shows their attention was diverted to the potentially threatening figure.

These results were duplicated in two additional experiments, including one in which the effect was found only for people actually wearing the uniform — not for those who simply saw one sitting on a nearby desk.

The good news is the black faces did not slow reaction times, suggesting a lack of unconscious racial bias on the part of the participants. However, the researchers note that the study was done in Canada, which has less racial tension than the United States. Results in this country may be different.

So why would changing clothes make us more attuned to possible danger? The researchers speculate that “uniforms may automatically activate concepts associated with police culture,” including hyper-vigilance.

In addition, they note, “a person wearing a police-style uniform may feel powerful,” and “power has long been associated with an increased reliance on stereotypes.”

Needless to say, this sort of biased perception is problematic. If a cop pays more attention to people dressed a certain way, he or she is more likely to notice — or infer — illegal activity on their part, and less likely to pick up on the bad behavior of others.

On the other hand, the fact that this effect was found in non-cops who simply wore a police-style uniform suggests this bias isn’t conscious, or restricted to a certain type of person.

Perhaps both police and civilians need to be aware that simply putting on the uniform influences how one sees the world.