A funny thing happened last summer. My colleagues Patrick, Irakli, and I had interacted all day without incident. Then at 4:00, we sat down next to each other for a meeting in our sr. director’s office.
Our managing editor turned to her and said “ you thought you were being attacked by a picnic table”. We were scarred, I don’t think any of us wore plaid for weeks after this. But then it got weirder.
Over the next few months I noticed this happening more often. I thought it was just the men but then Elise and Becky coordinated down to their Macbooks. Conspiracy theories started flying. We’re about to flash mob the Gap. NPR employees actually aren’t that creative.
And many other unsavory comparisons. I wanted to know why this was happening at NPR, so I investigated a few possibilities.
Theory 1 is what Miranda Priestly said in ‘the Devil Wears Prada’: You’re wearing a sweater that was selected for you by the people in this room. Top designers create new styles, which are emulated by other top designers and it trickles down to premium brands, mall retail, and discount stores.
I spoke with some folks in fashion and it turns out that’s pretty accurate. The key to transmission is the trend forecasting industry. I spoke to Jill Bradshaw, a Trend Director at Style Sight in New York. Her teams scour the globe for the latest trends and produces market research reports.
Every retailer buys these because you’re not on trend, you aren’t making money. Every company gets the same reports which is how they all know to make blue, slim-fit plaid shirts with western pockets.
Jill says that trends now spread at a much, much faster pace than ever before and it’s raising the stakes for retailers. Unsurprisingly, this is all because of the internet. Consumers can jump onto blogs and see what people are wearing in Berlin. Sydney. Copenhagen. It not longer takes months for tastes to trickle in from the coasts.
Companies follow trends because that’s what consumers want to buy. I heard from several people in fashion that shoppers want to be told what to wear.So, we mostly prefer to follow trends, not lead them. And that’s a good segue into our second possibility of why we dress alike:
Theory 2: We’re a cult. I spoke with my friend Joe Magee, who is a professor of Organizational behavior at NYU. There are two key forces that reinforce culture in organizations
The first force is selection. We select those who are similar to us to add to our organization. Others self-select to be with us because we fit who they are. The second force is socialization. Joe asked me if we had any core values training or ceremonial rituals like going out for drinks.
(Man in the mirror. I can barely tell Elise and Matt apart here). Once recruited, we socialize new members to be more like our existing culture.
The worlds of fashion, and people and ideas are so large, yet we innately choose to inhabit such a small part of those worlds. Diversity is hard, and if we value it, we need to work at it.
Here’s one final possibility –There is no pattern here, this is all random and meaningless. I’m over interpreting these wardrobe similarities because deep-down, I need an explanation.
I want to talk about confirmation bias for a second. Clay discusses it a lot it in his book. We commonly know confirmation bias as the psychological tendency to cherry pick facts and media sources that confirm what we already believe.
But confirmation bias happens even when we don’t have an agenda at all. It turns out that we humans just aren’t very good at coming up with rationale to negate what we’ve observed. As my friend Joe says, it’s as much a failure of our imaginations as anything else. If this is random, why does it keep happening?
Before my colleagues and I were viciously compared to a tablecloth, I’d never paid attention to how anyone dressed. I certainly never think about the hundreds of days when no one dressed alike. When they called us out, that made these wardrobe coincidences notable in my mind.
We’re wired to remember notable events. When something deviates from the norm, it sticks and becomes “available” in our minds. The irony is that because dressing alike is uncommon, I perceive it to be more common that it actually is.
My mistake – my bias – is to infer that there is a pattern here and to try to explain it. And it turns out there’s another study to suggest that people who feel that they aren’t in control are more likely to notice patterns. Joe told me gently. I’m not a reporter, but I also learned how . You have to worry about the biases you know about, the ones you don’t know about, and the possibility that you’re ascribing meaning to
So in conclusion: there’s at least one secret cabal making decisions for us. Groups select and socialize each other. And I own a lot of plaid. This was bound to happen
ONA DC 2012: Javaun Moradi on Seeing Patterns
You people all look the same to me (But why?) Javaun Moradi NPR Digital @javaun
Theory 1: “You’re wearing a sweater that was selected for you…”