Why Effective Altruists should care about dressing well

Edit (Feb 14 10pm): discuss context dependence more.

Look at the pictures below and notice any differences in your expectations about the people. If both people below tell you they’re building a company, which one would you be more surprised to see succeed? Which one would you be more surprised to learn has a PhD in Cognitive Science? Of the two, who would you be more comfortable introducing to your friends?

style shots (1)

Many people, including nerds and analytical people, will expect the person on the right to be smarter, more successful, better at difficult tasks and more socially competent. The person on the right has a slight aura of formidability about them.

Many analytical people look down on paying attention to fashion and caring too much about how you look, viewing it as frivolous and vain. I argue that knowing how to dress well and dress appropriately for your context is a valuable life skill that helps you be more effective and which is undervalued by analytical types.

The Why

Why does dressing well make you more effective? The basic reason is that people judge you based on the way you look. People look at your body and clothes and make guesses about you, and whether they make positive or negative guesses can affect you a lot. Even nerdy, weird, introverted, analytical people who say they don’t do this do this. Even you do this.

It is much better for you if all these people make lots of positive guesses about you. If people guess that you’re not conscientious or not part of their tribe, they will be less likely to consider you for a job or as a business partner, listen to you less and generally want to associate with you less. Getting good jobs or business partnerships, convincing people and having successful friends are all generally high value for whatever your goals are.

The process of guessing what kind of a person someone is is mostly fast and automatic: System 1. Your brain pattern matches and associates them with other people who dress similarly. If those people are conscientious, part of your tribe, socially deft and high status, you will guess similar things about them. If those people are forgetful, part of some other tribe, socially tone def and low status you will guess that about them.

So what characteristics do people infer from a well dressed appearance? The big relevant ones I see are

  • High conscientiousness
    You need detailed observation and attention skills to dress well.
  • Social group membership.
    Goths dress similarly, Silicon Valley nerds dress similarly.
  • Aura of competence
    Good traits correlate together in people.
  • Good social skills
    You have to care about and pay attention to people to dress well.
  • High social status
    Other people will infer you have these good traits, and give you higher status.

A benefit I noticed only recently is that I feel much more free to discuss the odd beliefs I have about charity, like thinking you should mostly donate to the best charity, or that you should spend time studying rationality, or the odd hobbies I have like hosting Effective Altruism meetups and doing statistics for fun. With a slight aura of formidability about me, I am usually judged as eccentric and interesting rather than weird and nerdy. As a result, I talk about Effective Altruism and Rationality with new people much more often than I used to. If you’re socially desirable, you can afford to do weirder things.

How do you know if you should spend more effort on learning how to dress well? You probably haven’t thought enough about dressing well if any of these fit you

  • Optimize your clothes mainly for comfort or convenience
  • Actively dislike the idea of paying attention to clothes
  • You don’t know what your appearance signals


Some people object, “This kind of game is wasteful, and I won’t participate!”. But that option is not available to you.  You cannot stop other people from making guesses about you. If you want to be altruistic, there are far more effective ways to improve the world than refraining from this status game.

Another objection I’ve seen is, “The way I dress signals that I’m beyond petty status games”. However, what you signal is not what you intend to signal, but the actual guesses that other people make based on how you dress, and there is basically no way to signal “I am beyond petty status games”.

The How

If you don’t know much about how to dress well, it may seem like a power inherently and permanently closed to nerds. But it turns out its pretty straightforward to gain this power. The basics of fit are relatively simple and logical once you know them, and fit is the cornerstone of style, and the rest is relatively simple as well, though it does take work.

There is some explicit knowledge that’s useful which you can get by reading some guides. My recommendations are here. The rest is implicit learning which you gain by time spent examining good examples and bad examples of dressing and observing the people you want to associate with. And of course most importantly by practice dressing and then getting live feedback from someone skilled in the art.