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The ‘Red Sneakers Effect’: Why genius doesn’t wear a suit

In the modern world we live and die by conduct codes, both spoken and unspoken, with traditional wisdom saying you better recognise and abide the rules or else: Don’t say what you really think. Don’t pick your nose in public. Don’t screw the crew.

And in a world where first impressions are accepted as mattering the most, the dress code is the code of conduct for aspiring professionals.

“Clothes,” said Bill Shakespeare, “maketh the man”, so it pays to know your business casual from your business professional, your formal from your semi-formal, your white tie from your black tie, your no tie from your tie-dye.

But, of course, there’s a ‘but’: It’s no longer true. It now turns out that violating these unspoken standards of dress can, in fact, have a positive effect on your career. The dividing line between dressing up and dressing down just got weird.

It’s called the Red Sneaker Effect, and as ridiculous as it sounds, it’s science.

“In both professional and nonprofessional settings, individuals often make a significant effort to learn and adhere to dress codes, etiquette, and other written and unwritten standards of behaviour,” goes the pre-amble to some research carried out by from Silvia Bellezza, Francesca Gino, Anat Keinan in the Journal of Consumer Research.

“Conformity to such rules and social norms is driven by a desire to gain social acceptance and status…and avoid negative sanctions such as social disapproval, ridicule, and exclusion.”

Obvious, of course, but the researchers continue: “In the present research, we propose that under certain conditions, nonconforming behaviors can be more beneficial than efforts to conform and can signal higher status and competence to others”.

The researchers argue the while unintentional violations of codes of etiquette can indeed result in negative judgements, “when the deviant behavior appears to be deliberate, it can lead to higher rather than lower status and competence inferences.” [Italics ours].

Simply put: When deviant behaviour looks done of purpose, high status is sometimes inferred. Ridiculous, sure, but under certain circumstances, true, and that deviance can take the form of something as seemingly benign as a pair of red sneakers.

Imagine this: There is a man walking down the street. He’s dressed in a nicely-cut, expensive-looking business suit and wearing a de rigueur pair of Oxfords. Now imagine a second man, same as the first, but instead, rocking a bright red pair of Chuck Taylors. Who would you judge as having the higher status?

Counter intuitive as it may seem, the average man on the street is likely to choose Johnny Redshoes as the higher statused of the two.  

The research carried out by Bellezza, Gino and Keinan found just that. They surveyed the reaction of business executives in a situation where a professor at a prestigious business school wore red sneakers – a peculiar choice in comparison to other faculty members – while lecturing them at a business symposium. The professor’s flaunting of dress-code expectations was taken by the group as an indication of status, a phenomenon dubbed by the researchers ‘The Red Sneakers Effect’.

It might as well have been called the Mark Zuckerberg effect. A dishevelled Zuckerberg has little trouble inspiring confidence in investors, drab grey t-shirt and all. If anything, his apparent lack of concern for appearances seems to imply that his concern has been more appropriately allocated – a comforting thought if you’re betting the bach on your Facebook stock.  

Similarly, Steve Jobs’ unwavering application of a black skivvy/mom jeans ensemble did little to dissuade an adoring public of the quality of his vision.

Stylish? No. Effective? Yup, a bit.

And what about New Zealand’s unique dressers? Ray Avery’s propensity for all-white Sikh-like garb could conceivably draw raised eyebrows in some instances, but not when it’s donned by Sir Ray himself. After all, he’s a bit of a genius.

And take Christine Rankin. Rankin’s jumbo-sized earrings and, in Steve Maharey’s words, “cocktail waitress” attire, only reinforced her reputation as the kind of woman who simply didn’t give a fuck what the Steve Mahareys of the world – or anybody else for that matter – think. 

So how can we turn this to personal advantage? What’s Idealog’s advice on the whole mess?

Forgo that $3k suit in favour of your personal brand of hobo-chic? Maybe. Or perhaps adopt some affectation on the off chance that your devil-may-care style implies an undiscovered genius? Er, maybe not. For every standard-flouting savant in a silly tie out there, there are half a dozen Peter Dunnes.

Perhaps this is the best course of action: Play by the dress-code rules if you want. Don’t if you don’t. Perhaps, when it comes to personal style, once again, the great Willy Shakes puts it best:

“This above all: to thine ownself be true”.

Further reading:

  • Want to actually dress like The Zuck? Seriously? Welp, okay then.
  • Just because they’re sneakers doesn’t mean they have to be cheap. Here’s your chance to drop $700 on a pair New Balance sneakers for some reason.  
  • Ever stopped to wonder why we all wear belts but not suspenders? Neither, but here’s the answer

Jonathan has been a writer longer than he cares to remember. Specialising in technology, the arts, and the grand meaning of it all, in his spare time he enjoys reading, playing guitars, and adding to an already wildly overstocked t-shirt collection.

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