Cialdini: Authority

We are now looking at the sixth category of emotional triggers that produce compliance. It is authority.

The Milgram experiments demonstrate the extreme effects that authority can have. A subject is ordered by a researcher (the authority figure) to deliver electric shocks to a third-party who answers questions incorrectly. The shocks get progressively more painful and the third-party begs to stop them. But when the authority figure instructs the subject to continue, more often than not he or she does so.  The shocking aspect is that the subject is fully aware that he or she is inflicting extreme pain.

Why is this so? At least in part, it is because we are trained from an early age to obey appropriate authority. Religious stories also abound with this lesson, like the story of Abraham who was ordered to sacrifice his son and would have done so if an angel had not stayed his hand.

Of course, we also know that in most cases, those with authority have access to superior information or are experts in a given field. These are good reasons to follow their authority. But so we do so, even to the point of doing it mindlessly.  Thus, a significant percentage of treatment errors in hospitals are due to nurses blindly following prescriptions of doctors., like inserting ear drops into a patient’s rectum where the prescription abbreviated the word “right” with “r” – this way “Insert drops into R ear”.

It is not the substance of authority that we defer to. It is its appearance. Thus, a famous actor who had once played a doctor on TV, was later on very successful in TV ads where he counseled people to drink Sanka caffeine free coffee for health reasons.

For this reason, one should beware of persons who show off the trappings of authority – the chauffeured car, elegant clothes, titles such as Dr. and so  on). Research demonstrates that using a title (like professor) makes one look smarter and taller. And clothing that symbolizes authority (like a security guard’s uniform) induces people towards obeying commands even when they are obviously silly. A business suit has similar effects.

To resist these effects, one needs to be sensitive to expertise and trustworthiness rather than just symbols of authority. Is the actor really an expert on the ill effects of drinking caffeinated coffee? And can the message he conveys in a TV commercial be trusted? If the answer is “no” to either question, beware!

Next up is the last category – scarcity. Stay tuned!


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