Persuasion Psychology:

Authority and Influence

By Sarah Jamieson

Persuasion Psychology - Authority and Influence: There are a famous set of experiments conducted by psychologist Stanley Milgram. He performed experiments to test people’s obedience to authority.

Milgram’s findings are a disturbing illustration of how authority figures exert control over all of us. Subjects in Milgram’s experiments were willing to deliver what they thought were extremely high electric shocks to a victim in another room who they could hear screaming in pain and begging to be released (the subject was really an actor).

Urged by a researcher in a white lab coat to continue giving the shocks, all of the participants continued to administer shocks up to dangerous levels.

However, when the experiment was changed so that the researcher was the one who asked the subjects to stop the shocks, 100% of them complied.

The Milgram experiments have been replicated many times by other researchers all over the world. Real-life examples of unquestioning obedience to authority are not hard to find.

Experiments have shown that when doctors make a clear error in the medication they prescribe, nurses tend to respond in an automatic way and don’t question the doctor.

The same is true of airline pilots and their subordinates.

The appearance of authority is enough to influence people, too. Titles like Doctor, Professor, Captain, and PhD have been shown to shape how people view us.

Clothes (uniforms, business suits, white lab coats) also furnish authority that people respond to. And this respect for authority also extends to the occupants of luxury cars! Scientific research shows that drivers show more respect for luxury cars.

Why We Obey Authority

Authority is an important element in human survival. An accepted structure of authority and a chain of command offers human societies enormous advantages.

Authority enables the creation of complex systems of production, trade, defense, and other generally beneficial systems. Without authority, these advantages are often unworkable – in fact, the alternative to authority is anarchy.

It’s not surprising then that from childhood we are taught to obey authority, whether it’s parents, teachers, or police.

This makes good sense for our survival and wellbeing when we’re kids – our parents and teachers do know more than us and if they tell us to wash our hands before eating or look before crossing the street, it makes sense for us to pay attention.

In adulthood it’s also advantageous for us to fit into the authority structures of the law, government, and the workplace.

The obsession with “experts” in our society is another testament to the power of authority.

Obeying authority is usually such a good idea that, like the other principles of influence, we simply do it without even thinking about it.

As I’ve said above, the tools of influence are useful mental shortcuts that allow us to make faster and generally good decisions.

These shortcuts are powerful persuasion tools precisely because we use them so automatically.

Let’s review the reasons why authority is such a powerful tool of influence:

  • There are strong pressures in society to obey authority
  • People will be much more likely to comply with the requests of an authority figure
  • Symbols of authority are powerful: for example, titles (e.g. Doctor, Professor, Captain, PhD,); clothes (e.g. business suits), and cars (e.g. Mercedes) have been shown to shape the way people respond to authority
  • Demonstrating expertise is another way to show you are an authority
  • Providing some mildly negative information about your product makes you seem more trustworthy when you talk about its benefits.

Stanly Milgram: Obedience to Authority, New York, Harper & Row, 1974.

Persuasion Psychology > Persuasion as Mental Shortcuts > Favor Reciprocation > Commitment and Consistency > Social Proof > Liking and Partiality > Authority and Influence > Scarcity and Exclusivity