Welcome to Influence, Psychology and Persuasion

This is session number 019 of Influence Psychology and Persuasion. This session is all about how we are influenced and persuaded by authority and authority figures.

So, how are we influenced and persuaded by authority figures, and how can we be more influential and persuasive by using our positions of authority albeit for the right reasons.

What’s the Science About Authority

I have been rereading a section in Robert Cialdini’s book called authority, and it struck a chord with me.

In brief, Cialdini wrote about a study done in 1965 by Stanley Milgram.

The study was to see if people who were directed by an authority figure, in this case, a teacher would electrocute participants in various stages based upon them answering questions correctly.

A participant was taken into a room and strapped to a chair; they were then fitted with electrodes on their arms. The subject for the test was in another room watching through a glass screen. The subject would ask a list of questions to the participant sat in the chair, and if they got any questions wrong, the teacher would direct the test subject to electrocute the participant sat in the chair.

Each time the electric shock voltage would increase by 15 volts. The first few questions emitted a shock that could be felt, but the recipient wasn’t too troubled by. However, once it reached nearly 100 V, the participant would then be showing signs of pain.

The exciting part, when the pain begins to increase for the participant who was being electrocuted, the teacher or the authority figure who was running the study told the test subject to make sure they continued to electrocute them for every wrong answer.

Even when the participant who was being electrocuted was showing extreme signs of pain and fear, the vast majority of people, when instructed by an authority figure, would carry out the electrocutions for every incorrect answer.

This was a test that was carried out multiple times using many different subjects to see whether the sex of the subject, the age of the subject and other factors skewed the results at all. The only one overriding piece here was when told by an authority figure to follow an instruction it was nearly always adhered to.

Now when I read this, it took me straight back to being a child. I can remember an adult in my face, with their finger pointing right at my nose saying “if they told you to jump off a bridge, would you?” well, knowing what I know now, and depending who that person was and what increments had led up to my compliance, then perhaps I just would.

This to me is a terrifying thought. We’re brought into this world to respect our elders, listen to our bosses, heed advice from medical figures, and go with what we are told by those in high authority places. Thankfully, because of this psychology quirk, we are far more likely to adhere when instructed by an authority figure.

The question poses concerns for our own personal morals and also for fighting for what we know is right. How far will we push our morals and boundaries, merely to adhere to another person’s orders or instructions?

How Far Will We Go?

Going back to that study again, as a demonstration of how far we can be pushed. One of the electrocuted participants during one of the studies started complaining that he had heart problems and he was starting to feel pressure there. What you think happened next? Well, as this study of influence and psychology have shown, in nearly all cases and especially when incremental, we cannot help but follow an order from an authority figure. Almost every person who was told that the participant had heart issues and was struggling with every shock continued to carry out the electric shocks as instructed. This is exacerbated by 2 more principles also. Cognitive Dissonance and Familiarity.

So what does this tell us? First things first, we are loyal as puppies, as long as our master is in a position of authority, or that we perceive them to be an authority figure.

How Can You Use This?

How can this be used to your advantage? With all things, I firmly believe that knowledge is power. So knowing and understanding this principle will help shape your own choices and understandings going forward. However, if you are in a leadership or management position, understand the power that you have. This power can be used for good because you now understand that people will want to adhere to your instructions. But think about the detrimental effect that could have if you are running a large team. As a manager or a leader, it’s been shown in many other studies that the best way to maximise results, is to allow those employees to think and act for themselves. Quite a problematic predicament management and leadership when you now have to consider how we are influenced and persuaded by authority.