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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