The influence of authority

As product makers and marketers, the ability to influence buyers is never out of mind. In that vein, chapter 6 of Influence: Science and Practice by Robert Cialdini explores the influence of authority (also see the influence of scarcity).

We are not the only species to give sometimes single-minded deference to those in authority positions. In monkey colonies, where rigid dominance hierarchies exist, beneficial innovations (for example, learning how to use a stick to bring food into the cage area) do not spread quickly through the group unless they are taught first to a dominant animal. When a lower animal is taught the new concept first, the rest of the colony remains mostly oblivious to its value…In one troop, a taste for caramels was developed by introducing this new food into the diet of young peripherals, low on the status ladder. The taste for caramels inched slowly up the ranks: A year and a half later, only 51 percent of the colony had acquired it, but still none of the leaders. Contrast this with what happened in a second troop where wheat was introduced first to the leader: Wheat eating -to this point unknown to these monkeys- spread through the whole colony with four hours.

Cialdini states that the influence of authority is first governed by connotation, not content. In other words, we tend to trust authorities due to titles, clothing and trappings, particularly within the context in which we find them. If someone claims to represent the truth through sheer repetition -even in the absence of proofs- most people will tend to believe them. An example of associative connotation in our industry is the title used for a book called Sewing for the Apparel Industry, written by Claire Schaeffer (a former community college instructor, she’s never worked in an industrial apparel manufacturing facility). This form of meme propogation was more fully discussed in Thought Contagion; the term “meme” having been coined by Richard Dawkins in The Selfish Gene. While Cialdini doesn’t specifically cite meme propogation; he does mention effective usage employed by con artists, saying they “…drape themselves with the titles, the clothes and the trappings of authority. They love nothing more than to emerge elegantly dressed…and introduce themselves to their prospective ‘marks’ as Doctor or Judge or Professor.”

The chapter on the influence of authority also provides strategies for defense against those who’d attempt to misuse their influence. These tactics remind me of advice I’ve extended often enough; that you’ll do better to weigh the input, advice and opinions of people in the trade who can be described as “rude” as they are obviously not using authority to gain your confidence through social platitudes. As Miracle has said:

Let me just say that I have never known of a scammer who wasn’t nice. And neither has anybody that I know who has been scammed. They are always friendly, cordial, always available to take your call, never too busy. I think this is part of the lure, why people trust them so much. Because, obviously, when you deal with so many curt or rude suppliers, you figure you’re better off with those who are the nicest.

I don’t like it when commentors on this site assert that “most people are sheep”. While I do not know the truth of the matter, I do know that Cialdini’s book can serve as warning to the wise and the wary. Whether you worry about being influenced or worry about being an influencer, you need to read this book. At $15, it’s a great buy.

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6 Comments on "The influence of authority"

4 years 1 month ago

Awesome article Kathleen- tons of food for thought here~

9 years 1 month ago

I am thoroughly confused. A few days ago, I wrote in Superfactory

“A ‘monkey see – monkey do’ mentality prevails in the management ranks. Once the monkey in the CEO’s chair starts dressing like he works in a manufacturing company instead of a bank, and begins to spend a chunk of his day in the factory, the rest of the management monkeys will fall into line and start doing the same.”

Does this mean I am blessed with the wisdom and insight of the folks that did the monkey experiments? Or does it mean that I am demeaning and arrogant like the folks who refer to people as sheep? Or does it mean that I should just start calling myself, Dr. Bill Waddell, Ph.D., so no one will question it when I write silly stuff like that?

Alison Cummins
9 years 1 month ago

Maybe someone could feel comfortable making statements like “most people are sheep” because they know for a fact that they are sheep-like themselves, and therefore assume that most other people are too? They might not think it’s any more insulting than saying “most people’s poo stinks.” Not pleasant, but not a big deal either.

On the other hand, maybe they feel comfortable saying these things because they’re arrogant ***holes who don’t care about other people. You’d have to know more about them to make that call.

I guess I have less trouble with some of these kinds of statements than some (most?) people because I think “and.” I am sheep-like AND critical AND creative AND lazy AND female AND a worker AND privileged AND idiosyncratic AND ethical AND self-serving AND bilingual AND …. No analysis displaces any other, it just adds another layer.

(Not that this is the best way to think – I am notoriously unfocussed and making choices is a foreign concept to me – but because I think this way I don’t feel insulted by comments about sheep, though maybe I should be. I don’t feel like it takes away the fact that I am also a critical thinker. I can have both! I want both! I want it all!)

I am not saying anything about how anyone may have meant anything, or whose interpretations are correct. I’m just trying to understand why a statement that was outrageous to most people was banal to others. And then I can learn how to avoid horrible communication mistakes that make people unhappy.

And no, I’m not wise. I’m terribly, terribly ignorant. Also curious. I just want to understand, and there’s so much out there to learn…

9 years 1 month ago

I’m guessing that you mean people are not helpless, that we can make choices. That even if we have monkey-like tendencies, we can learn to overcome them. I’m guessing that what upsets you so much about “most people are sheep” is that you hear “most people are helpless animals with no capacity to reason.” And of course, anyone making that statement would be arrogant, mistaken and rude.

Allison, you’re always so wise. Yes, this is what I mean. And you’re right, I do think that someone making sheep statements is arrogant. I think it’s a way of saying they’re better than others. How do they know they aren’t sheep themselves?

Personally, I cannot be confident that I am not a sheep. Perhaps that explains the constant inventory taking of my own thought processes and explains why I read and think so much about cognitive processing. Why do I think what I think? I don’t understand how others can so blithely suggest that people are sheep without examining themselves. I can never be confident that my own thinking isn’t self serving. Rather, I start with the assumption that it is and go from there.

9 years 1 month ago

Bravo Alison!!

You nailed it:

‘I’m guessing that what upsets you so much about “most people are sheep” is that you hear “most people are helpless animals with no capacity to reason.” And of course, anyone making that statement would be arrogant, mistaken and rude.’

I think you single handedly surmized the entire debate. I can’t speak for Kathleen, but I would say that that would be the reason for the upset. I even mistook the offense. I agree that we have tendencies that one would describe as sheep-like in the loosest terms, but I think the “influence of authority” more rightly describes our tendencies than sheep-like.

Thanks, Kathleen for posting this. I will buy the book (after I get yours of course) it will be an interesting read, I’m sure.