Authority is one of Richard Cialdini’s six factors of influence.

From childhood we are taught to trust people in authority and to do as we are told – parents, teachers, policemen, doctors etc.

This can easily lead to abuse – see this video with Millgram’s electric shock experiment where the authority figure authorises the use of lethal levels of electricity.

Millgram Experiment

This is scary stuff which helps to explain war crime atrocities but where do you draw the line as things step up gradually. Remember the desire to be consistent with previous actions which helps to create extra commitment to the cause.

Policemen have the power of the legal system behind them and doctors years of of training but what about waiters?

Cialdini found that waiters are seen as authority figures in restaurants and frequently asked for their recommendations. A good waiter can play on this factor, making low cost recommendations to win trust before suggesting a more expensive win.

Cialdini found that there are three factors in creating authority:

  • Title
  • Clothes
  • Trappings

Titles and qualifications establish expertise which can be relied upon in short-cut decision making.

Clothes need to be fit for purpose. A successful businessman often wears a suit, while unsuccessful one will have threadbare clothes. A suit doesn’t make sense for a builder or plumber but a nice, neat uniform will give reassurance.

Sometime the clothes create instant authority. Think of a policeman controlling a crowd who has instant authority without having to say anything. This type of automatic assumption can be used by conmen.

Trappings are the things you associate with the role. The expensive car for the executive, the smart office and desk and the briefcase. less to do with cash and more with experience may be the toolbox for the car mechanic which looks as if it’s been used for years compared to the bright, shiny new set of tools for the apprentice.

If Cialdini were to re-write the book now, he’d probably go deeper into authority and in particular expertise

The world has moved on from when qualifications were all that matters.

Experts can become authorities through writing books or blogging and be seen as leaders in their fields – and especially if it is connected to one of the new technologies.

But authority can also be claimed. In a “fake it until you make it” situation, if you keep repeating message which claims thought-leadership often enough and back it up with some kind of proof (social proof, consistent actions) you can establish authority.

Another famous psychology experiment, by Philip Zimbardo looked at how authority moved to the roles people were asked to play in an experiment based around prison. Some of the students were prison guards while others were prisoners.

The results were so frightening, the experiment had to be abandoned as power was abused.

Zimbardo Prison Experiment video

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