Do Clothes Make the Man? What A Jaywalking Study Teaches About Appearances

by | Apr 25, 2023

Imagine this scenario: you’re a pedestrian waiting to cross a street, and there are no cars coming, but the indicator is displaying a “Don’t Walk” image. Do you cross or do you wait? What if there is another person there — would their actions affect your decision? And would it matter what clothes they are wearing?

Would You Follow a Well-Dressed Jaywalker?

Jaywalking (illegally crossing a street) has been the subject of numerous social experiments over the past 75 years. Probably the most interesting one is from 1955 where researchers observed pedestrians’ jaywalking tendencies in three situations:

1. When the subject was alone

2. Where a confederate of the researchers dressed in low-status clothes (blue-collar work attire) jaywalked.

3. Where a confederate of the researchers dressed in high-status clothes (a suit-and-tie) jaywalked.

The result? Subjects were more likely to jaywalk when the confederate did so, and they were much more likely to jaywalk when the confederate was wearing high-status clothes.

The experiment was repeated by other researchers in 2001, who likewise found that: “The number of offenses committed by pedestrians increased significantly when the confederate was dressed as a high-status person rather than when he was wearing clothes suggesting a low or intermediate status.”


The first takeaway is that humans are highly susceptible to social influence. In response to a kid saying that he did something wrong because he followed what his friends did, parents sometimes say, “well if your friends jumped off a bridge would you also jump off a bridge?” The answer is “yes” — we’re much more likely to jump off a bridge if our friends do. We’re social creatures and tend to do what other people do. (Note, however, if you’re thinking about lemmings running en masse off a cliff, think again — lemmings don’t do that — the reason we think this is because of a bogus documentary produced by Disney. You can read about that in this IFOD.)

But the second and bigger takeaway is that appearances matter. There’s truth to the saying, The clothes make the man.” Dressing well conveys authority and competence.

As business attire has given way to business casual, which in turn has devolved into a confusing post-COVID mash-up of business casual and leisurewear, it’s become difficult to navigate how to dress at work. Maybe a good rule of thumb is to dress so that more people would follow you if you jaywalked.


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