So far in this six-part article, we’ve covered four of Dr. Robert Cialdini’s six “Weapons of Influence”Reciprocity, Commitment/Consistency, Social Proof, and Liking. Now it’s time to talk about the weapon that really scares me…”Authority.”

Weapon Number Five: “Authority,” Directed Deference

The Authority Rule is the reason no one questions the guy with the clipboard at the head of the velvet rope line. Well, that and the really big bouncer dudes who flank him.

Bill Murray, studying “negative reinforcement on ESP abilities”…and hot college chicks, in Ghostbusters

Cialdini opens this chapter very dramatically, putting the reader in the hypothetical situation of participating in a research study involving negative reinforcement (electric shocks) on memory quiz answers (kinda like Bill Murray in the beginning of Ghostbusters). You’re the volunteer who receives the shocks, and there’s another volunteer behind a two-way mirror who, under the direction of the researcher, administers the shocks.

The shocks begin mild, but as the wrong answers accumulate, so does the electrical intensity. Soon it reaches the point where you yell out as you receive them. You finally scream that you want to quit the study, but your pleas get no response. The other person simply repeats the next question into the intercom.

You can’t think straight anymore, and all your answers come out wrong no matter what. The pain is searing. You stop answering and just remain silent, but the examiner interprets your silence as an incorrect response and continues administering higher voltage…

You may think the story is starting to sound like something out of Orwell, or some really bad dream. Now here’s the kicker, and this really shocked me…

This experiment was actually done with real people.

Only one thing was different.

The person receiving the shocks was an actor, pretending to be in serious pain. The experiment was not testing the quiz answers at all. It was testing the behavior of the other volunteer, the one who was administering the shocks. They wanted to see how much pain a person would be willing to inflict on another innocent person, simply because someone in authority told him to do it.

Positively Shocking

Here is Cialdini, talking about the results:

The answer is most unsettling. Under circumstances mirroring precisely the features of the “bad dream,” the typical Teacher was willing to deliver as much pain as was available to give. Rather than yield to the pleas of the victim, about two thirds of the subjects in Milgram’s experiment pulled every one of the thirty shock switches in front of them and continues to engage the last switch (450 volts) until the researcher ended the experiment. More alarming still, not one of the forty subjects in the study quit his job as Teacher when the victim first began to demand his release; nor later when he began to beg for it; nor even later, when his reaction to each shock became, in Milgram’s words, “definitely an agonized scream.”

Follow-up experiments would determine that the central factor eliciting this seemingly cruel behavior was the presence of an authority figure (the researcher), who simply told the Teacher volunteer to keep administering pain. Milgram tried reversing the script at one point, having the shock-receiver act brave and defiant, insisting to receive the higher voltage, while the researcher seemed less enthusiastic about continuing. In that scenario, none of the volunteers continued administering shocks.

“Respect Mah Authoritah!”

Cialdini identifies three major factors that cause us to unconsciously confer authority on a person: titles (e.g. “The Dread Pirate Roberts” is far superior to “The Dread Pirate Wesley”), clothing (not just expensive clothes but uniforms, lab coats and other vocational vestments), and trappings (luxuries and special contexts or settings that come with status). He talks about how con men manipulate using these three elements in combination to inspire deference. For example, we will defer on medical issues to a person we do not know at all, as long as they are wearing a lab coat.  We will defer to another person we do not know if he has a higher title or rank.

Authority is the projected result of high social status. They are essentially the same, like energy and matter. We saw evidence of the status hierarchy in action when we discussed Social Proof and Liking, but here it is much more stark. Humans seem hardwired to defer to the highest status individuals in a given situation. We see this trait in other pack animals, when for instance the members of a wolf pack submit to the authority of the alpha member.

We also know from our look at how attraction works that we are attracted to authority, as it is the outer reflection of status.

Authority = Getting Away With Anything

People will tend to confer authority on those who possess the trappings, clothes and titles of authoritative positions, but that’s not the beginning and end of the subject. True authority is behavioral. The outer reflections of authority are just that: reflections. You can dress well and maneuver for a fancy title at work, but that will only give the appearance of authority. True authority is noticed in high-status behavior that is natural and constant. Traits like body language, tone of voice, lack of insecurity, composed, laid-back demeanor and other behavioral traits are necessary for other factors like clothing and titles to have any meaning.

A very wise man told me once, “You can get away with anything if you do it with enough authority.” If you start asserting and leading, you will be amazed to find that people will have an urge to follow your lead. People are actively seeking authority to follow. You will notice that in the absence of authority or a higher-status leader, people will become unsure of what to do (e.g. “What do you want to do?” I don’t know, what do you want to do?”).

Marketing With Authority

Marketers and advertisers use authority both implicitly and explicitly. Testimonials from (supposed) authorities have been a time-honored explicit advertising tactic. How many commercials have you seen in your life with someone dressed in a lab coat?

Implicitly, marketers will try to associate their product or brand with authority or industry supremacy to establish ethos. There’s a reason no one ever got fired for buying AT&T (although that’s not as true today as it once was). This is the tactic behind the published whitepaper, and the emergence of “thought leadership.” How many times have you heard the following:

  • “Our company is a pioneer in this industry.”
  • “…backed by leading scientists and researchers.”
  • “Trust the experts.”
  • “You deserve the best.”
  • “We know what works.”

Here are some more resources on authority:

As always, Strategy Insight has a great summary.

Phil On Advertising has a Microsoft case study seen through Cialdini’s eyes.

Technolust and Loathing posted some session notes from CIL2010, and talks about a session on persuasion, influence and innovative ideas.  There’s an interesting statistic in there that says 90% of the world population is influenced by the other 10%.

Go out and watch people who act with a natural authority, and observe how they act. At first you will say, “There’s something about that person, I just can’t put my finger on it…” Then you will start to notice the clothes and the trappings. Then you will notice the behaviors: the minimal body movement, the still head, the direct attitude, the effortlessness evident in the facial expression…the “air” of authority.

What do you think? Who do you defer to and why?

Continue on to Part 6: Scarcity…

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  • Learn what makes a business fragile, so you can avoid pitfalls that sink most founders.
  • Discover how to set up your business to use setback and stressors as fuel for growth.
  • Build an unstoppable business that uses resistance to grow like muscle!