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Authority and Influence
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Authority and Influence

Authority and Influence
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I would like for us to talk about authority and influence. And this might sound utterly confusing to you. Because I specifically told you that we’re discussing influence and persuasion without authority. But the idea here is that we often respond to and comply with mere symbols and signs of authority, not actual authority. I would like to describe to you a classic experiment done by Stanley Milligram, who disguises experiment as a memory exercise. So there are teachers and students involved. Teachers would read strings of words to students, and students would be asked to recite those words back to the teachers. If the student made a mistake, the teacher was asked to administer electric shock to the student.
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In front of every teacher, there was a dashboard with 30 separate switches, where every switch increased voltage of the shock in 15 volt increments. And with every mistake, the teacher was asked to increase the voltage of the shock. The question Milgram was asking is, how many people would go all the way, all the way to 450 volts? Take a look.
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When Stanley Milgram polled experienced medical psychiatrists and asked them to estimate how many people would comply and use the shock. Their estimate said that on average about 3.7% of participants would administer a shock of 300 volts. And no more than one-tenth of 1% would go all the way to 450 volts. In reality, what Milgram found is that 100% of participants in some of his studies administered 300 volts. And about two-thirds went all the way to 450 volts, and administered at least twice until he told them to stop.
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All of this because there’s a person in a position of authority in the room, the experimenter, wearing a white lab coat, telling you to continue. I take the responsibility even though you are the one pulling the switch.
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These studies came out in the aftermath of the second World War, where we really struggled to understand how it was possible that the Nazis set up such an elaborate web of concentration camps. Who could possibly work there? The conclusion that Milgram reached based on these studies is that if the Americans ever wanted to do something like this, they could find all the personnel in one midsize American town.
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We’re so blindly compliant with authority. So the idea of authority is that we respond to mere signs and symbols of authority, not necessarily actual authority, like that white lab coat of the experimenter. There’s a long and very robust line of research documenting the effect of titles. So, for example, in one of the studies, over 95% of professionally trained nurses were willing to administer an unsafe dosage of unauthorized medication. Just because the person who ordered it introduced himself as a doctor on the phone. Trappings, in many countries in the world if the car in front of you is not moving on the green light you tend to honk.
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Well guess what, there’s studies showing the car in front of us is newer and more expensive, we wait longer before we honk. That’s our subconscious compliance with authority.
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The way you dress. In some studies, scholars simulated shoplifting. And when a shoplifter was wearing a suit and a tie, they were significantly less likely to be reported, compared to someone who was wearing casual clothes. Or when a jaywalker, person crossing the street on a red light, was wearing a suit and a tie. People were three and a half times as likely to follow as someone who was wearing more casual clothes.
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In some of the studies, a person approached strangers and asked for a couple coins for somebody else for a parking meter across the street. And when the person making the request was wearing civilian clothes, the compliance rate was below 50%. But the moment that person was redressed in the uniform of a security guard, the compliance ratio shot up to well over 90%. So think of using authority as an influence tactic. Do not underestimate the power of business attire. Develop a reputation for being an expert. Show that high status people support your ideas. Indicate your expertise through industry-specific knowledge, jargon. Mention your degrees and you can be subtle about this.
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You don’t necessarily have to tell everybody that you have an MBA. But you can say, look, I’m gonna look into this issue by digging something up from my MBA coursework. And on the receiving end, always check if the authority is legitimate and pertinent to the situation.
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