9 January 2013

Obey! Obey! Obey! – Influences of Authority on Behavior

The second component of the Social influences dimension (of the 4D Behavioral Model) is the Influence of Authority or better said Submission to Authority.

In a previous post - Doing What Others Do – Social Influences of Peers I have stated that human society is by its very nature Hierarchical. Due to this nature of society, human behavior is influenced by others on two dimensions. The Horizontal dimension was discussed in the post mentioned above. In essence we are influenced by the behavior (or mere presence) of people just like us – peers.

In this post I will discuss the influence on behavior on the Vertical Dimension, namely how our behavior is influenced by others that we perceive as authorities (in other words higher in rank).

Even if we don’t like to accept, we are by our very nature obedient in front of authorities. The source of this obedience is, in my opinion, the outcome of both nature and nurture. I believe that our distant ancestors were selected by evolution to live in small social groups that were hierarchical. Life in social organized groups was more advantageous in fulfilling the two macro-goals of evolution – survival and successful reproduction. In my view there is a “hard wired” component of submission to authority.

At the same time, I believe that submission to authority has a nurture (learning) component. Children are taught to “listen to their parents”. They are exposed to various authority figures such as teachers, doctors etc. and are taught to do what they say.

Having clarified to some extent the source of obedience towards authority, I invite you to watch this short video. It is an (amateur, but very cute) experiment that illustrates submission to authority figures.

After watching the short video, I guess you got a general idea of the difference between behavior under the influence of a non-authoritarian figure and behavior under the influence of an authoritarian figure. The simple change from plain clothes to a uniform made a huge difference in the behavior of drivers.

Now, making people honk is quite meaningless. Apart from being somehow annoying, honking is a harmless gesture. Unfortunately our innate obedience to authority figures can lead to much more disturbing behavior.

The first and most known experimental study on obedience to authority is “the Milgram Study”.  Stanley Milgram ran his studies in the early 1960s when the memory of World War II was still fresh in the public mind. The intrigue that lead to conducting this research was the horrible crimes committed by the Nazi against Jews and The Gipsy. The popular view was that such horrors could be done only by very (mentally) sic people. Taking into account that the number of people that have committed the horrors was quite large, it seems unlikely that they were all severely mentally disturbed. Milgram wanted to see if normal, regular people would behave in a horrible manner. Most importantly, Milgram wanted to see under which circumstances regular people would commit such horrors.

In order to increase the validity of the results, Milgram decided to not use students as subjects (as it is customary). The participants in his studies were recruited through newspaper ads and in a nutshell they were “regular people”.

The study was disguised as a “memory and learning” study. There were two roles: the teacher and the learner. Now, the learner was not really a participant, but was a person who was part of the experimental team (confederate as scientists like to call these people). In other words, he was an actor hired to play a role.  

The real participants (the regular people) were all placed in the role of the teacher. Their task was relatively simple: they had to read (teach) to the learner some pairs of words and then check if the learner has actually learned. If the learner gave a wrong answer, then the teacher would have to inflict a punishment, which was an electric shock. The interesting thing was that the shocks were increasing in voltage.

The shocks were delivered through a “shock generator” with several buttons starting at 30 volts (normally people would not feel it) and increasing in increments of 15 volts up to 450 volts. The many switches were labeled with terms including "slight shock," "moderate shock" and "danger: severe shock." The final two switches were labeled simply with an ominous "XXX."

To better understand, your regular socket has 220 volts (in Europe) or 110 volts (in US and Russia). If someone would get 220 volts through his or her body there is a serious risk of death. Now, 450 volts would be more than enough to kill someone or at best to inflict very serious pain and burns.

The “trick” of the experiment was that the learner who was an actor would give wrong answers on purpose. No! He was not a masochist; that was the scenario of the experiment. Of course the learner was not really connected to the device that delivered the electric shocks. The teacher was completely unaware of this. In addition, the teacher and the learner were in separate adjacent rooms (cubicles).

In the same cubical with the teacher (the real participant) there was another actor who played the role of “The professor”. He was dressed in a white lab-coat and posed as a figure of authority.

The teacher was able to hear the learner through speakers. This allowed the teacher (real participant) to hear the screams of pain of the learner (fake screams of course). Whenever the teacher would hesitate to deliver an electric shock “the professor” would give rather vague instructions to continue such as "Please continue" and "The experiment requires that you continue".

The results of the experiment were at least disturbing. Approximately 65% of the participants went all the way and deliver all the shocks, including the (potentially) lethal ones.

To rephrase this, 65% of a relatively large group of regular normal people went on and deliver electric shocks to a stranger that not only would be very painful, but most likely kill him (her).

I repeat! 65% of a sample of normal people would kill a complete stranger!

There are many things to be learned from the Milgram Studies, but the most important one is that the presence of a figure of authority was crucial. Even if “the professor” was only an actor and he had only a regular “white lab coat”, he was perceived as a figure of authority and people did what he said – “Continue”! To make this a bit more clear. The white lab-coat was not a formal uniform of an authority structure (such as police, military etc.). The actor was presented as “the professor” but no credentials were shown. In fact he was just a regular guy playing a role.

The main conclusion of the Milgram studies is straight-forward: people would behave in a way that they can’t conceive under the presence of an authority figure.

For more information on the Milgram Studies you can watch the next video (a reenacting of the original experiment). 

Also you can check out these links:

Now, coming back to less dramatic and horrible, influences of authority, we encounter in daily life significantly more instances of the influence of authority figures.

One very simple example is “the specialist” that recommends something. There are countless commercials that feature a “specialist” who can be a doctor, dentist, carpenter, repair man etc. This authority figure recommends using or buying a certain product. To what extent these recommendations are honest is a different matter. What should be kept in mind is that commercials are written by copywriters.

Another example is the recommendations of books by public figures, usually other writers. Even the best books (at least the ones I have read) had some endorsements from other writers, including ones clearly inferior to the author of the book.

In the end I would like to address the topic of the intersection between peer and authority influences. Sometimes the borderline between peers and authority is a bit unclear. Let me give you an example.

Suppose you want to change jobs and the new potential employer asks for a recommendation from the current (previous) employer. The recommendation given by the current employer can be both peer and authority influence. If the new and old employers are more or less at the same level, then it is peer influence. If the old employer is at a superior level than the new one, then it is authority influence.

Should we question authority more often? Well, that’s for you to decide.

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