Trust in the Hoodie: the Morality of Clothes

Even though it’s part of our ordinary routine, we know that our choices in dressing each morning can be significant. Shirt-and-tie attire is essential for just about any professional job interview. The wrong shoes can get you barred from a nightclub.

But when do the clothes we put on our back become an agent of distrust and crime? For Trayvon Martin, the African-American teenager who was shot in the street by a neighbourhood watch captain in February, the answer is this: when you’re wearing a hoodie.

But you say: of course it isn’t as simple as that. You can’t blame the guilt of an overzealous, racist patrol guard on a jumper for godssake. Perhaps not, but judging from public reactions in the months following the tragedy, Martin brought to our attention that many others identify with the discomfort generated by this single article of clothing.

As attorney and talk-show host Geraldo Rivera explains:

People look at you and what’s the instant association? It’s those crime scene surveillance tapes. Every time you see someone stickin’ up a 7-11, the kid’s wearing a hoodie. Every time you see a mugging on a surveillance camera or they get the old lady in the alcove, it’s a kid wearing a hoodie.

What we see in the media also reinforces this psychology – who was even a little surprised that the primary suspect for ABC employee Jill Meagher’s rape and murder was known everywhere as the ‘man in blue hoodie’?

This is ironic of course because the hoodie is supposed to defy association. Walking down the street wrapped in a hoodie you can enjoy a little extra anonymity (or just warmth). The trade-off is that you risk being labeled as an anti-social troublemaker. By choosing to cover part of your head, you cannot be identified from the back. Your face has become hooded, so it follows that your character also becomes slightly shadier to a stranger’s eye. But can we apply this rationale to other articles of clothing?

In particular, I’m talking about the inherent suspiciousness of the hijab (women’s headscarf), and let’s not even get started on the burqa. That Muslims everywhere are, at this current moment in time, unfortunately associated with al-Qaeda extremists and terrorism only adds to the general untrustworthiness of the religious garment. An Anglo schoolgirl experimented with wearing the hijab for a few hours, and the reaction she got was astoundingly negative.

You have to step back for a moment and remember that this is just a piece of fabric. It doesn’t contain any dark magic and it’s not a weapon of mass destruction. But thanks to our basic psychology with some help from reflexive social associations, the trust bank is severely anaemic.

Let’s first explore the psychology of trust. Intuitively, we distrust those who cover their faces. This isn’t so hard to understand. Our faces are our most honest feature: eyes are a window to the soul, facial muscles give away the lie, and blushing means you’re embarrassed. More importantly, your face is the most seen, and therefore the most identifiable part of you.

So trusting someone clearly depends a lot on how well you can identify him/her. How about their reputation? Well, studies show that the known reputation of someone might not matter as much as you’d think. Researchers from Darmouth University found that people are more likely to trust someone whose face ‘is generally perceived as trustworthy, even when they are given negative information about this person’s reputation’. I know what you’re thinking: what is a ‘trustworthy’ face and where can I buy one? Who even knew there was such a standard of measure? I can only guess that bigger eyes and upwardly curved lips constitute trustworthy faces, while highly arched eyebrows and a bigger mouth (for bullshitting) do not.

It’s hard not to feel depressed about the findings of these studies, or ‘trust games’ as they call it. Not only are we really freaking dumb (or just shallow) when it comes to trusting strangers , but we might just have been born with a shifty face and it’s really not my fault officer!

Similar experiments have tried harder to identify exactly what features we are most predisposed to trust. The results from the University of Aberdeen suggest that we are more inclined to trust those who resemble us physically. Um, who invited Narcissus to the party? Participants’ level of trust increased by almost 25 percent towards faces digitally tweaked in a way that increased resemblance to their own appearances – in other words, the sibling you never had.

This hypothesis works – if you trust yourself.

After all, all this dabbling in psychological games is only useful if we can respond appropriately to what our subconscious is telling us. Distrust is but an instinct, the inner roar of the primitive beast within that cares only for survival. Pinky promises and contracts signed in blood mean nothing if you, in your heart of hearts, don’t feel the trust.

Luckily we have experts around the world who make up special terms to help us to understand. Distrust serves a valuable risk-gauge function if we listen to it properly. By that, I mean that we must learn to separate dysfunctional distrust from functional distrust. It is rational to maintain a certain level of distrust towards unfamiliar people and situations in order to protect us from harm. Even when acquaintanceship has been formed, nay, even in intimacy, it would be wise to not throw out your own sense of criticality. This is based on the assumption that all rational beings act in self-interest, and that these interests change reactively and over time. A modicum of distrust now stops you from spilling tears over faults of misjudgment later.

On the other hand, obviously there is such a thing as too much, and distrust isn’t something you want to have too much of. If this is you though, you’re probably being set back by dysfunctional distrust. The danger of this? Well, it’s the induced hostility and paranoia of dysfunctional distrust that leads to hypervigilance and the deaths of innocent people like Trayvon Martin.

So are you damned if you do, damned if you don’t? I have no simple answers for you. Trust and judgment clearly go hand in hand, yet the consequences of each can sometimes be irreversible. But in most cases with some luck, humility and forward thinking you’ll be able to bounce right back. Hopefully this post has made you question whether you really can trust your neighbor, stranger, brother, or indeed yourself. I hope you can – hoodie wearer or not.

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