“Dress for success” might sound like trite advice, but researchers took a deeper look and found that dressing well could actually have a measurable impact on a worker’s productivity and level of achievement. In fact, sharp clothes might even give an edge when it comes to thinking big thoughts.

The Wall Street Journal reports on a pair of studies that looked at the impact of clothes with a “high social status.” The first one, published in the Journal of Experimental Psychology, involved a role-playing exercise where 128 test subjects had to engage in mock negotiation sessions with each other. They had been split into three groups: one dressed in sweatpants, white T-shirts and plastic sandals; one in traditional business suits and dress shoes; and the last group kept the clothes that they had when they came in.

Participants in the latter neutral group always played the role of “sellers” in the negotiation, and those with the high social status and low social status clothes took turns being the “buyers.” As with any negotiation, both sides were trying to get the other side to make concessions and leave some money on the table. What the authors of the study found is that the group that was “dressed for success” only conceded $830,000 on average compared to their opening bid while those dressed in lower status clothes (sweatpants, T-shirts, sandals) were willing to give up $2.81 million on average.

If that wasn't pretend money, the difference between the two groups would certainly pay for a lot of nice clothes!

Untangling how the formal clothes help is difficult, but it’s likely to be a mix of making the wearer feel more confident and of better projecting that image of success and confidence to others, which might make them interact differently with the well-dressed person as a result. And if others treat you with more respect because you seem more successful and more confident, it creates a virtuous cycle further boosting your confidence.

But dressing up doesn’t just help when you have to face someone else in a negotiation. A different study, published in Social Psychological & Personality Science, tested whether wearing formal clothing helped enhance the abstract cognitive processing abilities of 361 participants. The results show that it was associated with higher levels of abstract thinking and better seeing the "big picture" rather than getting stuck on small details.

It’s actually in more casual work environments that sharp clothes can have the biggest impact, since they are more notable. If everyone dresses like James Bond, nobody stands out. And when it comes to standing out, a different study previously covered on MNN points out that some non-conformity in clothing has the potential to help you get ahead at work, as long as it appears to be deliberate (in other words, it won’t help you to look sloppy, but wearing a bow tie when everyone else is wearing a tie could work).

Michael Graham Richard ( @Michael_GR ) Michael writes for MNN and TreeHugger about science, space and technology and more.