The psychology of persuasion – authority

Influence: The Psychology of Persuasion

This article is the seventh in an eight-part series about Robert Cialdini’s book Influence: The Psychology of Persuasion. In this chapter, Cialdini convincingly demonstrates that most of us have a very strong tendency to follow the instructions of someone we perceive to be an authority.

Cialdini describes the infamous Milgram experiment, in which subjects believed they were inflicting increasingly high levels of electric shock on an actor, even though he was screaming for them to stop. The subjects were extremely uncomfortable with what they were doing, but they continued to shock the subject because the researcher urged them to do so. Milgram concluded from this experiment that humans possess an “extreme willingness … to go to almost any lengths on the command of an authority.”

A common denominator in most of the research about authority is that people drastically underestimate how much the appearance of authority will influence them. The fact is, they are extremely inclined to follow the instructions of someone who looks like they know what they are doing. The researcher in the experiment above was able to make the subjects comply with his instructions because he wore the right costume for an authority figure in that setting – he was wearing a lab coat and carrying a clipboard.

The mechanism in play with the authority principle is that you will be inclined to substitute the judgment of someone who possesses the symbols of authority for your own. Cialdini cites a chilling study where an unknown person using the title “Doctor” gave incorrect medication instructions – over the phone – to very experienced nurses. Even though the instructions were clearly wrong, the nurses did not use their own clinical judgment. Instead, the instructions of the “doctor” were followed 95% of the time.

This article has been more difficult to write than the others because so much of Take Back Your Brain!’s emphasis is about taking back our own power. Why would we want to give it away again? The answer to that question comes from Cialdini. He says that anytime we see a technique widely used by compliance professionals it’s because it works. TBYB! is interested in taking ownership of any technique that others use to hijack our attention, and applying it instead toward achieving our own goals. Following are several suggestions about how we might be able to use the authority principle:

1. Select someone to represent authority in your ad because they are more expert in a topic than you are.

In this case, you’re using the authority figure as a role model. For example, I’m going to launch a campaign this week in which my dog plays the spokesmodel for relaxation. He’s clearly much more expert in that topic than I am, so I’ll use pictures of him to deliver the message. Keeping the authority principle in mind, I’ll make sure to invest him with all of the trappings of expertise, such as blankets, favorite toys and puddles of sunshine.

2. Make up an authority.

Actors play authorities in TV commercials all the time; you can do the same thing. Cut out or download a picture of an authority figure and make them the spokesmodel for your message. If your goal is to get in shape, give yourself a virtual coach with a whistle and clipboard. If you’d like to develop more discipline about money, make up a successful financial planner with a briefcase, expensive car, and really nice suit. You get the idea. Basically you’re externalizing the things you already know you should do onto an imaginary figure, investing that figure with the trappings of authority, and then letting them tell you what to do.

3. Collaborate with a person who you recognize as an authority in some area of your life.

It may be someone you’ve hired to help you, such as a therapist, coach, life coach, sponsor, mentor, or teacher. Maybe you already spend an hour or two a week with them working hard to learn something. The problem is that you are massively influenced by both habit and distraction as soon as you walk out the door. How cool would it be if you received a reminder or two between sessions, nudging you to stay on track? Research suggests that if the person feels like an authority to you, messages from them would be really effective. One possibility would be to create several text messages and use a tool like Backpack to deliver them via email or cell phone at a later date.

Several therapists have asked if it’s possible to send voice messages in a similar manner. Imagine how effective it might be to take a minute or two to record a voice message at the end of a session that your client would receive halfway through the week. I’m working on that concept now here at TBYB labs and will report the results as soon as I figure out the best way to do it. One tool that looks promising is Braincast. It lets you call a phone number to record a voice message, then uses an online interface to schedule delivery of that message to another phone number at a later date.

Next week we’ll look at the final topic in the psychology of persuasion series. Cialdini has saved one of the most powerful motivators for last: scarcity.

Other articles in the psychology of persuasion series

  1. The psychology of persuasion – because
  2. The psychology of persuasion – perceptual contrast
  3. The psychology of persuasion – reciprocation
  4. The psychology of persuasion – consistency
  5. The psychology of persuasion – social proof
  6. The psychology of persuasion – liking
  7. The psychology of persuasion – authority (you are here)
  8. The psychology of persuasion – scarcity

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