You Must Respect My Authority

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One of my favorite episodes of South Park is when crass little Eric Cartman puts on a police officer’s uniform. He trolls around on his Big Wheel, screaming “Respect my authori-tie!” before bashing people with his baton.

In his quest for authority, Cartman knew what he was doing by putting on that uniform. And given that he was on the giving and receiving end of electric shocks in The South Park Movie, he probably would have loved to participate in the following rather disturbing study.

Shocking Results

You see a newspaper ad saying the psychology department at Yale is running a little “experiment on memory.” Paid volunteers are needed for the hour-long study, so you figure what the heck. Upon arrival at the lab, you meet two men — a research scientist in a lab coat, and another volunteer just like yourself. The researcher proceeds to explain the study to you both.

He tells you that the study is about the effects of punishment on memory. The task of the other volunteer will be to learn a series of word pairings (he’s called the “Learner”). Your job as the “Teacher” will be to test the Learner’s memory of the word pairs, and administer electric shocks for each wrong answer. And also for every wrong answer, the voltage goes up.

You’re not sure about this whole thing, but it must be OK, right? The testing begins, and when the other volunteer misses a question, you pull a lever that delivers a mild shock. Over time, though, the shock levels increase, and the Learner is grunting audibly. At 120 volts, he states that the shocks are really starting to hurt. At 150 volts, he tries to quit.

The researcher tells you to keep going, and that the electricity will cause “no permanent tissue damage” to the Learner. At 165 volts, the Learner screams. You continue questioning and delivering punishment for incorrect answers. At 300 volts, the Learner refuses to respond any longer, as the shocks are impairing his mental capacities. The researcher tells you to treat non-responses as incorrect answers. The Learner is screeching, kicking and pleading for mercy with every subsequent shock, all the way up to 450 volts when the researcher finally stops you.

This couldn’t possibly have really happened, right? Well, actually, it did, in 1963 at Yale, during a series of experiments by Stanley Milgram.

But here’s the real scoop about the Milgram experiment: there were no actual electric shocks; the Learner was an actor; and the study had nothing to do with memory. What Milgram wanted to know was how far the Teachers would go when told to continue to deliver those shocks, since they thought they really were.

About two-thirds (65%) of the subject administered every single shock up to 450 volts, no matter how much the Learner begged for mercy. However, without the researcher’s encouragement to continue, the study found that the test subjects would have stopped giving punishment quite early on. A 2002 meta-analysis of the original data confirms the validity of the findings.

The results shocked the Yale psychology department, and have become a part of modern lore. Every aspect of the experiment had been carefully vetted to pull test subjects from a standard cross section of ages, occupations, and education levels. In other words, these were not sadistic savages, they were people just like you and me. What could possibly lead to this behavior?

Milgram says it’s our deep-seated sense of duty to authority. We’re trained from childhood to respect authority, and the obedience that comes with it stays with us throughout our lives, even when we feel something may not be quite right.

Perception of Authority Matters Most

Our deference to authority is driven mostly by perception. That’s why a lab coat, police officer’s uniform or $4,000 bespoke suit alone can facillitate influence over or control of others. We even act differently toward other people depending on our perception of their authority level, sometimes even adopting their mannerisms and speech patterns.Another study mentioned in Influence: Science and Practice analyzed episodes of Larry King Live, and observed the ability of perceived authority to alter speech patterns. When King interviewed people with great levels of social standing or prestige, his voice style changed to match theirs. When interviewing people of lower status, King remained steadfast, and the voice styles of the guests shifted to match his.

The most important aspect of the data demonstrating the power of authority is that context matters more than actual content. In other words, if a person is perceived as an authority figure, what they say is taken at face value and accepted as fact more readily. It helps someone bypass otherwise common objections. Building authority is therefore crucial to building a business, especially if you are selling services or knowledge products.

Content Creates Context

Good blogging creates authority, plain and simple. Writing consistently about your area of expertise makes you an authority figure within your industry and niche. You will enjoy a definitive advantage over competitors who do not blog, and likely even over those who have been blogging for shorter time periods.

Professionals and other business people have long been writing for trade publications and newspaper columns to build authority, coupled with networking in the community and at trade shows and conferences, all in an attempt to build word-of-mouth referral business. With blogging, you’re building authority and networking all at once, and on a global scale if your business model benefits from that kind of reach.

The goal is not to be on the A-List as determined by the Technorati Top 100 Blogs. Your goal is to be on the A-List for your niche, geographic region or industry. Hopefully you’re well on the way with your own blog.

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Reader Comments (25)

  1. says

    I completely agree, waiting around until you are good enough to be an authority figure is not the way to build your professional empire. Writing, improving, and doing are. You’ve referenced the book Influence several times in your writing and for anyone who hasn’t read it, I highly recommend it. Thanks for the great read.

  2. says

    That was a very interesting read indeed – but then if you have ever worn a uniform you may have already noticed that there are things you can do in uniform that you would never be able to achieve in street clothes.

    I guess it also goes to show that if you work at it you can become a legend in your own lunchtime :)

  3. says

    Thanks Michael. Stuart, the only uniform I’ve ever worn was the attorney’s standard-issue overpriced suit. Worked like a charm. I get zero respect in the real world the way I dress most days now, but I wouldn’t change it!

  4. says

    Thanks, Brian, for the reminder about the Milgram experiments. I believe there were others, if my psychology memory is working, where students were designated as wardens in a prison situation, given authority over prisoners, and actually became quite sadistic. (Yet we scratch our heads about our own military boys and abuses in war.) The application of authority to blogs – as well as ezines – is brilliant. There truly is “power in the written word.” Or, as I like to say, success leaves a trail, and it is often in the form of a written trail of articles, blogs, and website copy.

  5. says

    Hi Patsi. I know you and Denise have been preaching the power of information marketing for quite a while, so thanks for the feedback.

    And yes, the Milgram experiments (and the one you cite) are extreme examples of the power of authority (especially when we’re talking about blogs here) but they sure do make for entertaining (if disturbing) stories!

  6. Nick says

    I found the post “You Must Respect My Authority” to be quite interesting. I was born in the states to a pretty ordinary Anglo-Saxon family. But have been living in and out of Japan for 31 of my 55 years. I have experienced first-hand, Japan’s sense of obedience to authority through my bilingual immersion in Japanese society. And I have come to deal with this authority much in the same way that the average Japanese person would. My acculturation
    via Japanese in-laws, friends, peers and teachers has stuck – for better or worse.

  7. says

    I completely agree, waiting around until you are good enough to be an authority figure is not the way to build your professional empire. Writing, improving, and doing are. You’ve referenced the book Influence several times in your writing and for anyone who hasn’t read it, I highly recommend it. Thanks for the great read.

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