How to Spot a Suitor Who is Only Dressing the Part

First impressions are hard to change, particularly when they are consistent with expectations.  We visualize police officers in uniform, lawyers in business suits, doctors in white coats or scrubs.  First impressions can, however, be horribly wrong.  

The Los Angeles Times profiled one of the most illustrative stories of deception, masquerading as true love.  Deception that ironically, was visible by judging the book by its cover. 

The “Dirty John” series details how John Meehan swept high society single Debra Newell off her feet with his doting, charismatic personality.[i]  His dating website profile portrayed him as Christian, divorced as she was, and a physician.  After just a few dates, he was telling Debra that he loved her and wanted to marry her. He did, within less than two months of their first date.  No one was invited to the spur of the moment Las Vegas wedding.  

It turned out John was not a physician, he was not even employed—something that Debra´s relatives, who were wearing reading glasses instead of rose colored glasses, noticed in part, through John´s clothing.  

Judging a Suitor by His Cover

In claiming to be a doctor, John really tried to dress the part.  In fact, he overdressed the part—which turned out to be a huge red flag.  Yet his effort was an attempt to capitalize upon the reality that patients do indeed perceive credibility through clothing.  

A study by Kurihara et al. (2014), acknowledging that physician attire is one of the most important factors that impact patient confidence, found that white coats were perceived as the most appropriate attire for doctors, followed by scrubs.[ii]They also found that younger participants perceived scrubs as more appropriate attire than did older participants.

Petrilli et al. (2015), in reviewing available literature on the topic, found that patient perception of physician attire varies with age, geographic location, setting, and context of care.[iii]  Seeking to determine the impact of physician attire on patient trust, confidence, and satisfaction, they found that preference for white coats and formal attire were highest with older patients, and studies conducted in Asia and Europe. 

With procedure specialists, however, there was either a preference for scrubs or no attire preference.  There was also no preference in settings involving emergency and intensive care.

John claimed to be a freelance anesthesiologist, opting for scrubs over the white coat, which would arguably be more appropriate for his supposed position. Yet John wore scrubs all the time.  Even to a formal cancer benefit, where his attire was noticeably inappropriate for the occasion.  

When you looked at his outfit closely, however, there were clues that demonstrated his doctor´s garb was not a very effective costume after all. 

When Credibility is a Costume

Debra´s 24-year-old daughter Jacquelyn actually described John´s scrubs as a “costume.”  Having worked with plastic surgeons in a sales job, she noticed that John´s scrubs were not only faded, they were frayed.  Specifically, frayed around the heels, which Jacquelyn knew was more indicative of scrubs worn by a receptionist in a medical office who wore tennis shoes to run around performing errands. 

But there was more.  When John wore clothing other than scrubs, he still looked underdressed—even on his first date with Debra—when you would think he wanted to make the best impression.  

According to Debra, on their first date John appeared “weathered” and laid back in a mismatched shorts-prep shirt ensemble. Perhaps his chiseled bodybuilder muscle pics online were enough in his mind to win over the ladies.  It seemed to work with Debra.

Yet other people noticed John´s unflattering attire as well.  Debra´s mother described his dress is tacky.  Jacquelyn thought John looked like a “loser,” perhaps even homeless.  

Even Debra was apparently dismayed that the cover of her new romance novel belied the content. “Dress me,” he told Debra when the topic came up. So she did.  She said taking him to Brooks Brothers to buy him a new wardrobe was like “having a new doll.”  

Yet in retrospect, it was John´s attire before the makeover that provided the best glimpse of the character beneath the costume.  

Look Closely at the Book Cover

Eventually, the dream fell apart, leaving Debra and her family confronting the red flags that were there all along.  We are all susceptible to judging books by their covers, Dirty John, however, employed a cover he was not able to pull off—because those who looked closely were able to spot the phony. 

Can you? 


[i]  The details revealed in this multi-part expose are analyzed in this column.  

[ii]Hiroshi Kurihara, Takami Maeno, and Tetsuhiro Maeno, ”Importance of physicians attire: factors influencing the impression it makes on patients, a cross-sectional study,” Asia Pacific Family Medicine 13, no. 2 (2014).

[iii]Christopher Michael Petrilli, Megan Mack, Jennifer Janowitz Petrilli, Andy Hickner, Sanjay Saint, and Vineet Chopra, ”Understanding the role of physician attire on patient perceptions: a systematic review of the literature—targeting attire to improve likelihood of Rapport (TAILOR) investigators,” Open Access (2015) doi: 10.1136/bmjopen-2014-006578.


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