Learn the six universal principles of influence and how to use them to improve your marketing efforts.

Part 6 of this seven-part series of articles, which are based on Dr. Robert Cialdini’s book, "Influence: The Psychology of Persuasion," explains the fifth principle of influence – Authority.

The Fifth Principle of Influence: Authority

In the 1960's a series of now-famous experiments were conducted to determine the extent to which people responded to authority. These experiments involved three individuals: a Researcher, a Teacher, and a Learner.

The Researcher (who was the “authority figure” because he wore a lab coat and used a clipboard) told the person playing the role of the Teacher that the experiment was being conducted to find out how punishment affects learning and memory.

The Learner was expected to learn a list of pairs of words and to recall each pair correctly. The Teacher was told to test the Learner's memory and to deliver an increasingly stronger electric shock (i.e., a shock that increases by 15 volts) for each mistake made. Both the Researcher and Teacher left the Learner and went to another room to conduct the memory test through an intercom system.

In actuality, no shocks were delivered during this experiment, but people playing the role of Teacher believed that the Learner was being shocked for wrong answers. The Learner was an actor who was only pretending to be shocked. The real purpose of the experiment, therefore, was to see how much pain individuals are willing to inflict on an innocent person in response to orders given by someone in authority.

About two-thirds of the subjects (i.e., Teachers) used the highest voltage available (a dangerous level of 450 volts!) to shock the Learners. Instead of yielding to the pleadings of the Learners to stop the experiment and to end the painful shocks, two out of three subjects obeyed the Researcher, who gave instructions to continue the experiment until the maximum punishment of 450 volts was delivered.

The results of this experiment surprised everyone. Why would so many ordinary people agree to inflict so much suffering simply because they were being told to do so? Many experiments were conducted to rule out certain explanations – that males (used in the original experiment) are naturally aggressive, that subjects did not understand how dangerous the electric shocks were, that the sample did not represent the population.

After the series of experiments was completed, the only plausible explanation for the results was this: people are unable to defy the wishes of authority because there is a deep-seated sense of authority within all of us.

Obedience to Authority

What do these research results mean in the workaday world? Our willingness to respond so effortlessly to the demands and wishes of authority have rather sobering implications. All forms of authority – government agencies, churches, educational institutions, scientists, physicians, and even our parents – are able to extract alarming levels of obedience from us simply by telling us what they want us to do.

Why, then, are we so eager to obey in response to authority's commands? Social scientists have pondered this question for decades. The evidence suggests that a system of authority has several advantages for a society. Without this system, and with anarchy taking its place, it would be impossible to develop sophisticated structures needed for production, trade, defense, and social control.

Consequently, it's no wonder that we are taught from birth that obedience to authority is “good” and that disobedience is “bad.” All of our social systems – including the parental, educational, legal, military, political, and religious – place high value on loyalty and submission to the proper authority.

Like other principles of influence, the rule of authority offers a valuable shortcut regarding decisions we make in our daily lives. In most situations it benefits us to defer to authority.

But what often is a blessing can easily become a misfortune, especially when mindless obedience results in inappropriate action. At times we can do ourselves a great disservice if we simply react to the pressures of authority by allowing blind obedience to direct our behavior.

The Appearance of Authority

Our automatic, yielding response to authority figures makes us vulnerable to the symbols of authority, which may have no genuine substance. The mere appearance of authority may produce compliance.

For example, Robert Young once played the role of a physician (Marcus Welby) in a television series. He also became a spokesperson for Sanka and tauted the benefits of drinking their coffee. Although Young was not a real medical authority, many people watching the commercials bought the product because they believed that he was the “real McCoy.”

There are plenty of other symbols that consistently trigger our automatic response to authority when no real substance exists. These symbols are often used by compliance professionals to persuade us to take action that may not benefit us.

First Symbol of Authority: Titles

We all have experienced how we behave toward others based on what titles they hold. Individuals typically respond differently to doctors, lawyers, and CEOs than they do to janitors, garbage collectors, and factory workers.

Various studies have empirically shown the connection between size and status. For example, the results of one experiment indicated that the perceived status of people affects estimates of how tall they are. Individuals with prestigious titles tend to be seen as taller in height. It appears it's the importance of a thing (whether it is an object or a person) that makes it seem bigger to us.

The relationship between size and status also applies to certain animals. For some species, size is an important factor in determining the dominance and status of males in the group. Size-enhancing tricks (e.g., arching backs, bristling coats, extending fins, unfurling and fluttering wings) are often used in contests between two males to communicate dominance and to avoid conflict.

What does all of this mean in the realm of humankind? First, it is clear that the association between size and status can be used profitably by people who want to give us the appearance of authority simply by faking their height. It is not uncommon for con men to wear lifts in their shoes.

Second, a prestigious title can easily be counterfeited by exploitative individuals to convey power and authority. The ease by which this can be achieved was illustrated by Frank Abagnale Jr. (portrayed by Leonardo DiCaprio in the movie, “Catch Me if You Can”), who successfully swindled organizations out of millions of dollars by posing as a pilot, doctor, and attorney over a period of years.

Second Symbol of Authority: Clothes

There is a lot of truth in the saying, “clothes make the man.” Many studies have repeatedly shown that people typically cannot resist responding to requests from or following the lead of individuals dressed in uniforms and business suits.

For example, in one experiment 92% of individuals gave a stranger some money for a parking meter after being told by someone wearing a security guard uniform to do so, compared to only a 42% compliance when the same person was dressed in regular clothes. In another experiment, people were found to be three and half times more likely to follow a jaywalker (crossing a street) attired in a business suit than someone who was wearing regular street clothes.

And it's not unusual for con artists to dress for their parts as “authority figures” when they attempt to get individuals to comply with their nefarious requests. Frank Abagnale Jr. would not have duped so many people had he not worn the right clothes for the roles he was playing.

Third Symbol of Authority: Expensive Extensions

Certain status symbols, like expensive cars, watches, and jewelry, influence most individuals in unexpected ways. Like prestigious titles and distinctive clothes, expensive extensions of ourselves help to mesmerize people into compliance with “authority.”

For instance, one study found that motorists waited significantly longer before honking their horns at the driver in a luxury car stopped in front of a green traffic light than at a driver in an old, economy car. In addition, while most motorists used their horns to get the attention of the economy car driver, half of the motorists behind the luxury car never even used their horns.

Ethical Marketing

The research clearly indicates that most of us are not aware of the degree to which our perceptions regarding authority affect our decisions and behavior. This is exactly what unscrupulous compliance professionals are counting on as they attempt to influence us with titles, clothes, and other trappings of authority.

The best defense against being hoodwinked in compliance situations in which the symbols of authority are being used to manipulate us is to increase one's level of awareness regarding the power of authority.

This is not as easy as it sounds. The trick is to realize when the requests from so-called authority figures should be heeded and when they should be disregarded.

Ethical marketing and sales practices involve using an authority that is truly an expert in the appropriate field. Unethical tactics come into play when organizations use fake authority symbols to get us to respond to their requests with automatic obedience.

For example, Robert Young was not a real physician promoting the health benefits of Sanka coffee in the television commercials. Although viewers may have thought of him as Marcus Welby, M.D., he did not have the proper credentials in real life to claim that Sanka coffee was healthy.

If a company does use the “authority card” in its advertising, not only should the authority figure be genuine and relevant, but the information being conveyed should be truthful. Authorities, even if they are authentic, don't always present information honestly.

Therefore, what should be called into question is not only the credentials of the messenger but also the verity of the message.

Author's Bio: 

Barry Farrell is an organizational psychologist who has provided management consulting for over 35 years. Visit GreatBizTools to try some free BizTools and to register for a free 15-day trial of WebAssess, an online testing system.