Clothing affects performance on math tests

I stumbled across an interesting article recently, entitled “The Swimsuit Becomes You: Sex Differences in Self-Objectification, Restrained Eating, and Math Performance” by Fredrickson et al. (1998). In the article, the experimenters describe how they attempted to measure the effects of clothing on self-objectification, or the tendency for an individual to appropriate the perceived opinions of others regarding their appearance. They randomly divided their participants into two groups, one of which would try on a swimsuit, and one of which would try on a sweater, and while each individual regarded themselves in a full-length mirror, they were asked to complete several questionnaires and do some other tasks. Not surprisingly, they found that the female cohorts who tried on the swimsuits experienced increased shame about their bodies, and those participants with high body shame scores tended to eat less when presented with an “unlimited” amount of food (i.e. they could eat as much as they wanted of what was presented). Men tended to experience significantly less body shame, and they showed much less restraint when eating than did the women.

More interesting, however, is their finding that wearing a swimsuit affected women’s scores on standardized math tests. Each participant did a fifteen-minute math test while wearing either the sweater or the swimsuit, and after the test scores were adjusted for each participant’s score on prior tests of math (i.e. the SAT or ACT), the overall tendency was for the women who were wearing the swimsuit to do much worse on the math test than the women wearing the sweater. This effect was not seen in the male group; in fact, the males who were wearing the swimsuit did slightly better than their counterparts in sweaters.

While I’m hardly qualified to judge the soundness of the methodology or the statistical analysis in this paper, I find this result fascinating in the context of, for instance, Leonard Sax’ and others’ arguments for sex segregated education, where the knee-jerk tendency is for people to attribute gender differences in scores on tests of cognitive abilities to some kind of biological or genetic factor. Clearly, the ability of a standardized test to capture some “absolute” measure of intelligence is not so cut and dried when the clothing that the test-taker is wearing can have such a remarkable effect. This seems especially relevant in the context of the increased sexualization of young girls, where the pressure to wear certain outfits might affect more than just socialization practices.

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