The Psychology of Persuasion: How to Improve Your Marketing Efforts (Part 6 of 7 - Authority)

Updated: June 10, 2011

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.

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