Mastering A Lethal Dose of Influence: Authority

In an attempt to understand how ordinary Germans could support the Holocaust, Stanley Milgram conducted an experiment at Harvard in 1961. He brought two human subjects into a room, a “teacher” and a “student”. The subjects were separated into two roles, the “student” hooked up to electrodes, the “teacher” administering shocks. The results were pretty conclusive. When the “teacher” was instructed to shock the “student” he/she did so. The “student” complained of pain, that he had a heart condition, that he wanted to end the experiment.  Despite all these cues to halt, 2/3  of  the “teachers” kept shocking the “student” with the maximum voltage. Some “teachers” were sweating, some biting their nails, some digging finger nails into their hands, some biting their lips. The only reason the “teachers” acted against their better moral judgement was that official lab staff encouraged them to keep shocking the “student.”

Obedience to authority is something we’re taught as children and has been instrumental to human evolution.  You learn about authority as a child and obey your parents. They are wiser and confer safety and support. You obey your boss. She/he understands the business better and confers a stable income. We try to  obey laws issued by politicians. Doing so keeps us out of jail and from slipping into anarchy. We listen to doctors because they can heal us. So obedience to Authority has been ingrained into our mental DNA over thousands of years. With the many Authority roles in todays society, it’s cognitively taxing to question each instruction. Most of the time Authority figures are correct. That’s why most people don’t scrutinize decisions handed down by Authority figures and simply do what they’re told. It’s just easier. This is precisely where where we are susceptible to suggestion.

Back in the 1970s Robert Young starred in many advertisements for Sanka, a healthy alternative to coffee. The strategy behind using Young was that he happened to play a Doctor on TV, Marcus Welby. Could nationally recognized TV doctor recommending a health product actually work? I imagine Hugh Laurie was solicited many times to pitch products like Tylenol or Benadryl.

So what makes someone appear like an Authority on a subject? Robert Cialdini believes it is the following:

  • Clothing-If you’re wearing a police uniform, you probably know something about criminal law; unless you’re a male stripper.
  • Titles-Dr. , SVP, Distinguished Engineer, Master of Sport.  The more fancy shmancy your title the more authority you command.
  • Size-People with authority are usually thought of as being physically larger. And by the same token larger people usually get a subtle boost in authority. Conmen typically wear heighten platform shoes to give themselves more credibility.

My 10 Second Brain Storm

  • On  blogs posts, increase trust by adding a spiffy title to the byline.
  • Taking some PR photos at Conference? Stand next to your peers and stretch out. Stand on your toes. Capture the moment.
  • Utilize your own industry specific Dr. House images or symbols on digital campaigns.

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