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Managing Authority so as Not to Lose Your Sense of Responsiblity

June 28, 2009

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.

People Buy From Those They…Like?

June 19, 2009

The fourth weapon of influence is one Cialdini attributes as “liking.” The classic example of this weapon in action is the Tupperware party. The Tupperware party actually employs several weapons at once (attendees win prizes – putting reciprocity in play), and each participant has to speak to the value that they receive from using Tupperware (public commitment and consistency) and, of course, social proof as each purchase reinforces the belief that other similar people want to buy the product.

Make no mistake, though, the foundation for success is predicated on the belief that you will be going to a friend’s house and she will be “asking” you to buy Tupperware products. While the Tupperware person may do the “ask,” the hostess sitting off to the side is the reason that you are even there.

The key success factor in many of these types of sales presentations is the referral from a friend.  Turning the salesperson away in these circumstances is like turning a friend away and that is exceptionally difficult for most people to do.

Cialdini, however, uses a very broad definition of the term “liking.” For example, physical attractiveness encourages people to like a person. In fact, we frequently attribute talent, honesty, kindness and intelligence to those people who look good. (Can someone say Billy Crystal’s impression of Fernando Lamas saying “It is more important to look good than to feel good.”) This is such an important element that for beer or car ads, “beautiful people” are frequently the spokespeople. And Cialdini cites studies that physical attractiveness impacts court settlements and sentences.

Sometimes those same car and beer manufacturers employ a different flavor of “liking,” one that Cialdini calls “similarity.” We like people who are similar to us. People, who dress, think, look and talk like us are ones that we relate to. Some sales people use this to great advantage by citing similar backgrounds (“You’re kidding — I grew up near Montana, too!”) so that we may relate to them more closely. Studies have also shown that people respond extraordinarily well to compliments…even if they are not entirely true.

The final component in his liking section is one devoted to contact and cooperation. This section is perhaps the most important element he discusses, because of its implications for tolerance among races and countries. Cialdini points out that where there is more contact between groups, familiarity breeds friendship – with one notable distinction.

When people are placed in competitive environments where rewards are perceived as zero sum games (only one or limited winners), enmity actually increases. This is an astounding perception because it crystallizes why school desegregation doesn’t usually create greater understanding among races and why longstanding political conflicts continue. Cialdini cites studies that suggest that if people share a critical (important because it encourages cooperation) goals and work together toward achieving it, friendship and respect are created.

As he does with all his sections, Cialdini concludes his discussion with how best to mange this weapon of influence. He recommends that we cognitively separate the message / offer from the messenger so that we may weigh the offer on its own merits.

Social Proof: Is there really strength in numbers?

June 12, 2009

I had expected that when I read about Professor Cialdini’s third weapon of influence, social proof, I would not discover anything terribly intriguing. Boy, was I wrong!

Social proof is predicated on this theorem: Since the vast majority of people are imitators, people are persuaded by the actions of others than by any other proof that is offered. We see this rule put into play quite often. Canned laughter, TV and print endorsements by “people on the street,” bartenders loading a jar with tips before people arrive, are all examples of creating a social proof that it is appropriate for us to take an action simply because there is an appearance that others just like us are taking that action.

The applications of this rule are significant. Studies have shown that children and adults can overcome fears by observing people doing what they are personally afraid to do. If they see someone else doing it, it feels safe to them.

The interesting application of this idea is the concept of similarity. It may not be sufficient to see someone else do something but, rather, it often has to be someone like us. In other words, a child will respond to seeing another child doing something as opposed to an adult doing the same thing. (Overcoming an irrational fear is easier for a child if another child demonstrates no fear when doing that particular thing.)

This, however, leads us to another cultural phenomenon.

Many years ago, Kitty Genovese was murdered in New York City. I first learned of the unusual circumstances surrounding her death when I heard the Phil Ochs’ song, “Outside of a Small Circle of Friends.” Her murder was particularly remarkable because 38 people observed the murder taking place over a period of more than a hal hour from adjacent apartment buildings. Yet, none called the police.

Ochs attributed her death to widespread apathy and said it was indicative of how unfeeling we had become. Cialdini, though attributes it to something he calls “pluralistic ignorance.”

Pluralistic ignorance assumes that when multiple people are present, people will (a) assume others will take actions and (b) look to others to see what actions should be taken because, to some degree, (c) they are uncertain. (It also may explain why when an e-mail is sent to multiple people requesting an action be taken, no one takes the action.) The interesting point about all of this is that if nobody takes an action, the assumption becomes that no action should be taken (Otherwise someone would have taken it, right?)

To test this theory, Cialdini cites a study, where an emergency was staged – sometimes in front of multiple bystanders and sometimes in front of a single individual. Help was provided nearly three times more often when staged in front of the individual than =when staged in front of the bystander groups.

The way to mitigate the likelihood of inaction is to do three things (1) Indicate that help is required – this eliminates the situational uncertainty, (2) designate an individual to help – this eliminates the perspective that “if I don’t help, someone else will” and (3) request a specific action – this removes any remaining uncertainty about what should be done. (“Hey you in the green coat – I’m hurt – stop, call an ambulance now!)

So how do you combat this form of influence? One needs to recognize the manipulation going on in social proof situation and, as the author suggests, recognize that bad social proof is being demonstrated and the our own behavior can be controlled.


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