Managing Authority so as Not to Lose Your Sense of Responsiblity

George Carlin once said, “I have just as much authority as the Pope; I just don’t have as many people who believe it.”

One of the most pervasive weapons of influence is the use of authority. Being told to, and indeed, “following orders” is such a powerful concept that it has been used in times of war and even the Holocaust of the 1940’s as a justification for committing horrific atrocities. Yet, when used for positive and appropriate purposes, it allows for order and the development of social and political structures that enables each of us the opportunity to live safely and productively in society and avoid a frightening state of lawless and dangerous anarchy. Talk about a double-edged sword!

Cialdini asserts that this is why we are literally trained from birth “that obedience to proper authority is right.” We learn this concept at home, in school and in our houses of worship. The Bible early on teaches us that the consequences of disobedience are pretty severe (Eating a forbidden fruit gets Adam and Eve – us? – tossed out of paradise or Abraham being tested and asked to sacrifice his beloved son because a Higher Authority tells him to do so).

The interesting thing is that once we have learned the importance of obedience, we pretty much follow it without giving it too much thought. We do this because we understand quickly that others know more than us or have greater access to information and there are true benefits to listening and following instructions from those who are “in the know.”

The challenge though is to know when to stop and think for oneself and avoid blind obedience. Cialdini cites a great example of this and one that most of us have experience with — healthcare. HCFA (The Healthcare Financing Administration) did a study and found that there was a 12% daily error rate in patient medication dispensing. A decade later, in the 1990’s, a Harvard University stated that 10% of all cardiac arrests were attributable to medication errors and while these errors can occur for a variety of reasons, at least one book attributes this situation to the “mindless deference” to the person in charge of the patient’s case – the attending physician.

The two professors who wrote this book, Medication Errors: Causes and Prevention, humorously tell the story of a patient who was prescribed ear drops with this note “place in R ear” and how the duty nurse place the drops in the patient’s butt instead of in the patient’s right ear. While tragically funny, more than likely, many of us have personal experiences that have taught us to ask questions when dealing with the medical establishment.

For purposes of our discussion, this example dramatizes how easily we submit to authority. More than that, we also submit to the symbols of authority. Seeing someone in a certain uniform (makes you realize the importance of understanding clothing as costumes), with a certain title, with a certain type of office or car, or with a certain level of authoritative expertise creates an automatic response to be influenced. One could make a case that Bernard Madoff leverage his positions on boards and trappings to such a great extent that he was able to create the greatest scam of all time.

Caildini notes how people become more deferential in conversation when they learn someone has a title. In fact, in one of the studies that he cites, he noted a correlation between perceived height and title. The greater the title, the greater the perceived physical stature.

So how does someone control this powerful form of influence? Cialdini believes that being aware of the powers of authority and its trappings is the first step to managing the inappropriate influence of authority. There are two questions that he feels needs to be asked – (1) Is the authority truly an expert? and (2) How truthful can we believe the expert to be to us?

Answering the first question enables us to decide if the authority is worth following and if that particular expertise is relevant to the situation. The second question is a little more complex in that if the authority has a vested interest in the outcome, the way that the information is presented in worth questioning.  Sometimes a practitioner of authoritative influence will use a tactic to show us that he or she is really on our side. They tell us something negative about the product so that when something positive is presented, we find their claim more believable. (L’Oreal – a bit more expensive but worth it) Still, this prescription for deciding whether to follow authority seems very practical.

Our next post will focus on Cialdini’s last weapon of influence – scarcity.

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