Influence: Cialdini’s 6 Principles of Persuasion – #5 Authority


“The results, as I observe them in the laboratory, are disturbing. A substantial proportion of people do what they are told to do, irrespective of the content of the act and without limitation of conscience. So long as they perceive the command comes from a legitimate authority.” 

These are the words of Stanley Milgram, a psychologist who set up one of the most infamous but groundbreaking experiments on authority. 

Milgram pondered the atrocities done by men during Holocaust. So, in 1961 he decided to examine how a person with authority can push people to commit transgressive and evil actions. 

Authority is one of six powerful psychological forces of persuasion — together with Reciprocity, Commitment and Consistency, Social Proof, Liking, and Scarcity.

I will cover this chapter a bit differently and base it on the Milgram Experiment, which, I think, explains authority better than anything. 

This machine generates electric shocks

In the 1960s, Milgram invited 40 males at Yale University aged 20 to 50 to his experiment. 

Each person participated individually to function as a ‘teacher’ opposite to a ‘learner’: 

– This machine generates electric shocks. When you press one of the switches, the learner gets a shock. When you release it, the shock stops, Milgram explained to the participants. 

“One theory is that people learn things correctly whenever they get punished for making a mistake. Now, each time he gives a wrong answer, you move up one switch on the shock generator. And it’s important that you follow this procedure exactly.”

Stanley Milgram giving instructions before the experiment

What happened in the Milgram Experiment? 

You can check out the video on YouTube. I find the experiment so intense and incredible that I’ve transcribed most of what’s going on.

Here it is:

– 165 Volts, the teacher proclaims. 

– Let me out, says the learner, who you cannot see from the room next door. 

– That guy is hollering in there, says the teacher.

– Continue, please, says one of the experimenters. 

– Go on, says another. 

After a prolonged exhale, the teacher looks at the paper.

– There’s a lot of them here. He’ll have a heart condition then. You know where to go? 

– Just continue, please, says one of the experimenters

– Sharp, ax, needle, stick, blade. Answer, please!? Wrong, says the teacher while placing his palm at his right temple. 

– Almost 180 volts, he says while looking in disbelief and uncertainty toward the two experimenters. 

– Please continue, teacher. 

– ‘Needle,’ you’re gonna get a shock of 180 Volts.

– Auuw, I can’t stand the pain! Let me out of here, the learner cries. 

– He can’t stand it. I’m not gonna kill that man in there, the teacher protests, now on the verge of leaving his chair to quit.

What does authority look like?

Before we continue with the experiment, let’s look at a few examples of “authoritarian” clothing and symbols

You can’t always tell if someone tries to manipulate you using their authority. But there are usually a few visual cues you can look for: 

  • Uniforms, suits, and medical gowns
  • Job titles
  • Credentials and expertise
  • Size of buildings
  • Statues and monuments
  • Diplomas on walls
  • Numbers and statistics
  • Money flashing

Authority might also appear as two stern experimenters in lab coats who, against your will, ask you to send electric shocks to ‘the learner’ …

We must go on

– As I said before, the shocks may be painful, but they’re not dangerous, says the experimenter. 

– What if something happens to him? 

– The experiment requires that you continue, teacher. Whether the learner likes it or not, we must go on until he’s learned all the words for it. 

– Who’s gonna take responsibility if anything happens to that gentleman in there? 

– I’m responsible for anything that happens, the experimenter answers sternly. Continue, please.

– Wrong. Answer is ‘neck,’ 300 volts. 

Immediately, there’s an even louder cry from the learner who seems to be in great pain: 

– I absolutely refuse to answer anymore. Get me out of here. You can’t hold me here. 

– Green, grass, hat, ink, apple, says the teacher. 

This time, there’s no response from the room—just silence. 

– Something’s happened to that man in there. You better check in on him, sir. He won’t answer me or nothing. 

– Please continue. 

– You accept all the responsibility? 

– The responsibility is mine, correct. Please go on. 

– Brave, woman, soldier, dog, horse … The answer is ‘woman.’ 450 Volts. 

– That’s it, the man says, throwing his hands in the air to signal resignation. 

– Now continue using the last switch on the board, please, says the experimenter. The 450 switch for each wrong answer. 

– I’m not getting no answer!

– Please continue. The next word is ‘white.’ 

There’s dead silence from the room next door. What has happened to the learner?

The teacher reluctantly continues until the research team stops the experiment moments after. At this point, it seems as if the teacher has become somewhat numb to the great pain he’s caused the learner.

Would you have obeyed the experimenter’s commands?

Why did the man complete the experiment? Why didn’t he stop when he was fully aware that he was putting another person in harm and possibly life-threatening danger? 

Forty psychiatrists at a leading medical school predicted that only 0.1 percent of people would administer the highest voltage on the board. 

But that’s far from what happened. In the Milgram Experiment, 50 percent (!) of all subjects obeyed the experimenter’s command fully:

“It is the extreme willingness of adults to go almost any lengths on the command of an authority that constitutes the chief finding of the study.”

Stanley Milgram

Maybe you’ve asked yourself this question:

Would I have obeyed the experimenter’s commands?

Of course, we would all like to say NO. But it’s hard to deny and oppose an authority when you’re in the hot seat.

The Milgram Experiment has been reproduced several times with similar results, like this one with Derren Brown from 2007. 

Why do people get influenced by authorities?

Authorities are people we perceive to have significant access to knowledge and power. 

More people than you would imagine will go to great lengths – beyond their boundaries – if commanded by an authority. People are not sadistic; they just follow orders if they find themselves in a stressful situation, as we saw in the Milgram Experiment. 

Information and orders from a respected authority are a shortcut for us to act or make decisions, so we don’t have to think for ourselves or try to avoid responsibility.

Presidents, doctors, military generals, and tv-personalities are just a few examples of authorities with tremendous influence on how people think and act. 

So, what is the best way to not become a victim of someone else’s authority? It’s not easy. But you must always consider the other person’s incentive. You’ll know just how truthful you can expect the so-called authority or expert to be if you know their motivation. 

By Kristian Magnus

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