Embodied Cognition: The “White Coat” Phenomenon in Customer Experience


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The New York Times recently reported an interesting observation that has been known by psychologists for quite some time. I call it the “White Coat Phenomenon”. Basically, the phenomenon is that a doctor’s white coat has many strong emotional and subconscious effects. The New York Times sums up the effect like this:

If you wear a white coat that you believe belongs to a doctor, your ability to pay attention increases sharply. But if you wear the same white coat believing it belongs to a painter, you will show no such improvement.

Few people will say that the reason they were better able to pay attention is because they wore a white coat. In fact few individuals will have noticed that they even performed better with the “doctor’s” white coat. This is just another example of the importance of understanding the emotional and subconscious drivers in the customer experience.

In psychology this body of study is called embodied cognition. Embodied cognition looks at how the physical body impacts our cognition. Most of us normally think of the things the other way around – how the mind influences bodily actions. In the “White Coat” phenomenon, wearing the doctor’s white coat has an effect on our mental processing. Of course the picture is complex so far we have stated it is not really just wearing the white coat but thinking that that white coat is a doctor’s white coat.

I call things like the white coat cues and these effect our mental processing. So it follows that if you knew what the important cues were in your customer or employee experience you could use these to drive the type of behaviour or attitude you were after. Beyond Philosophy uses an approach called Emotional Signature to study these emotional and subconscious cues.
The effect is just as potent in the employee experience. The productivity of workers can be increased if they have properly internalised the symbolic nature of the uniform. Assume you wanted your employees in your repair service centre to be more diligent in spotting errors, it is possible that you could use the “White Coat” phenomenon to help you better achieve it.

Embodied cognition and the “White Coat” phenomenon can be generalised as well. As The New York Times states:

There is a huge body of work on embodied cognition… The experience of washing your hands is associated with moral purity and ethical judgments. People rate others personally warmer if they hold a hot drink in their hand, and colder if they hold an iced drink. If you carry a heavy clipboard, you will feel more important. Other experiments have shown that women who dress in a masculine fashion during a job interview are more likely to be hired, and a teaching assistant who wears formal clothes is perceived as more intelligent than one who dresses more casually.

Republished with author's permission from original post.

Qaalfa Dibeehi
Qaalfa Dibeehi is the author of "Achieving Customer Experience Excellence" and "Customer Experience Future Trends and Insights". He has 20+ years experience in the customer experience related space with particular emphasis on organisations that have a dual commercial and social/community responsibility. He is Non-Executive Director at Emerge. Previously, he was Chief Operating and Consulting Officer at Beyond Philosophy and Director at Fulcrum Analytics. He has an MBA from NYU and three other Masters Degrees from City U. of New York in Statistics, Psychology and Health Care Administration.


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