Feb 06, 2022

Symbols of authority

Three symbols of authority—titles, clothing, and trappings—greatly increase chances of compliance.

Titles are simultaneously the most difficult and easiest symbols of authority to acquire. To earn a title normally takes years of work and achievement. Yet it is possible for somebody who has put in none of the effort to adopt the mere label and receive automatic deference. Actors in TV commercials and con artists do it successfully all the time.

Studies investigating the way authority status affects perceptions of size have found that prestigious titles lead to height distortions. In an experiment conducted on five classes of Australian college students, a man was introduced as a visitor from Cambridge University in England. However, his status at Cambridge was represented differently in each class. To one class, he was presented as a student; to a second class, a demonstrator; to another, a lecturer; to yet another, a senior lecturer; to a fifth, a professor. After he left, the class was asked to estimate his height. With each increase in status, the same man grew in perceived height by an average of a half-inch, so that he was seen two and a half inches taller as the “professor” than as the “student.”

Because size and status are seen as related, it is possible for certain individuals to benefit by substituting the former for the latter. This is precisely why con artists, even those of average or slightly above-average height, commonly wear lifts in their shoes.

A second kind of authority symbol that can trigger mechanical compliance is clothing. Police files bulge with records of con artists whose methods include the quick change. In chameleon style, they adopt the hospital white, priestly black, army green, or police blue the situation requires for maximum advantage.

A series of studies by social psychologist Leonard Bickman indicates how difficult it can be to resist requests from figures in authority attire. Bickman’s basic procedure was to ask passersby to comply with some odd request. In half of the instances, the requester was dressed in ordinary street clothes and in some sort of uniform in the rest. In one particular experiment, the requester stopped pedestrians and pointed to a man standing by a parking meter fifty feet away. Regardless of attire, the requester always asked the same thing: “You see that guy over there by the meter? He’s overparked but doesn’t have any change. Give him a dime!” Nearly all the pedestrians complied when he wore a guard costume but less than half did when he was dressed normally.

Less blatant as a uniform, but still effective, is the business suit. Researchers arranged for a thirty-one-year-old man to jaywalk. In half of the cases, he was dressed in a business suit and on other occasions he wore a work shirt and trousers. Three-and-a-half times as many people followed him into traffic when he was dressed in a business suit.

In addition to titles and clothing, trappings such as high-priced jewelry and cars can lend similar authority effects. Experimenters discovered that motorists would wait significantly longer before honking their horns at a new luxury car stopped in front of a green traffic light than at an older economy model. Interestingly, the researchers asked students to predict how they would behave in the situation and they were wildly inaccurate in predicting the results. Many assumed they would honk sooner at the luxury car compared to the economy car, even though the findings were the exact opposite.

The effect of authority influence is grossly underestimated and the observation that people seem to be unaware of its effect may account for much of its success as a compliance device.