Feb 05, 2022

Intro to authority

We are more influenced by people who seem to be an expert or in a position of authority.

The Milgram psychology experiment is a famous example of the influence of authority. In his experiment, subjects were instructed by a scientist running the experiment to deliver increasing levels of electrical shock. The person receiving the electrical shock was an actor merely pretending to be shocked but the subject was unaware of that fact. As the voltage was increased with each shock, the actor let out greater screams of agony. The surprising result of the study was that 65 percent of subjects carried out their duties faithfully to the maximum shock.

Let’s look at another example from one facet of our lives in which authority pressures are visible and strong: medicine. The worrisome possibility arises that when a physician makes a clear error, no one lower in the hierarchy will think to question it. Indeed, according to the Institute of Medicine, hospitalized patients can expect to experience at least one medication error per day. In addition, annual deaths in the United States from medical errors exceed those of all accidents, and, worldwide, 40 percent of primary- and outpatient-care patients are harmed by medical errors each year.

Take, for example, the classic case of the “rectal earache.” A physician ordered ear drops to be administered in the right ear of a patient suffering pain and infection there. Instead of fully writing out the location “right ear” on the prescription, the doctor abbreviated it so that the instructions read “place in R ear.” Upon receiving the prescription, the nurse put the ear drops into the patient’s anus. Obviously, it made no sense to treat the patient’s earache with rectal drops but neither the nurse or the patient questioned it.

Whenever our behaviors are governed in such an unthinking manner, we can be sure that compliance professionals will try to take advantage of it. In my next post on Authority, one of the 7 principles of persuasion from Influence: The Psychology of Persuasion by Robert Cialdini, I will discuss the symbols of authority that people use to persuade others and increase compliance.