Wednesday, December 19, 2012

Using authority to persuade

Would you shock someone with 400-volts if an authority figure commanded you to?

Robert Cialdini described six fundamental principles of human influence in his book Influence: The Psychology of Persuasion. One of the six principles is authority, the idea that people honor the lead of credible knowledgeable experts. Titles, uniforms, diplomas, and other signals of authority can significantly impact your ability to influence people's behavior.

In Cialdini's book, he describes Stanley Milgrim's experiment on obedience to authority figures. Milgrim set out to answer the question, "When it is their job, how much suffering will ordinary people be willing to inflict on an entirely innocent other person?" In his experiment, a majority of people responded to instructions from an authority figure to deliver nearly fatal levels of shock to an innocent person, merely because the person giving the orders established himself as an scientist with a lab coat and a clipboard. The test subjects administering the shock found it difficult to disobey the the lab-coated researcher. Some even protested against giving the shocks, but continued regardless. The physical presence of an authority figure and sponsorship of the study by Yale (a trusted and authoritative academic institution) dramatically increased compliance with the instructions. When authority figures present themselves to us, our natural tendency is to comply with their directions and commands.

Do you use authority to persuade others?

Is your job title at work important as a way to persuade others to take up your cause? What about the diploma hanging on your wall, or the books on the shelf in your office? How about the clothes that you wear or even the car that you drive?

Establishing yourself an authority figure can have a significant impact on your ability to influence others. Some of the cues can be very subtle, while others can be outright direct. You will often see people positioning themselves in the pecking order of a group in order to establish their authority. In sales and marketing, presentations at trade shows, published whitepapers, trade journal article contributions, and blogs can all serve to establish the perception of you as a credible authority figure. Many people will go through the painstaking process of writing a book simply to establish their place as a thought leader in a particular domain of expertise.

Watch Science of Persuasion for a brief description of Cialdini's 6 principles of influence:

Appealing to a sense of authority can only get you so far. What else is needed?

(Image courtesy of Eric Pierce)