Image: @Tomasz Grzyb/SWPS University of Social Sciences and Humanities via IB Times.

Stanley Milgram taught us something shocking about how people behave. But if you’re a marketer, he taught us something quite useful.

Last week, I wrote a blog post about trust.

Specifically, 20 ways to earn the trust of website visitors.

And it got me thinking about authority.

Because I think trust and authority are closely related.

Which led me to Stanley Milgram.

In the 1960s, Milgram recruited volunteers to take part in an experiment.

One volunteer was given the job of “teacher” and the other given the job of the “learner.”

They were told they were taking part in a scientific study about memory and learning.

But an actor would always assume the role of learner, so the subject of the experiment would always be the teacher.

Both were taken into a room where the learner was strapped into an electric chair.

To ensure that the learner would not escape, the experimenter said.

Prior to the test, the teacher was given a sample electric shock to experience what the learner would feel during the experiment.

The teacher and learner were then separated.

They could still communicate, but not see each other.

The teacher was then given a list of word pairs to teach the learner.

Reading the first word of each pair and four possible answers, with the learner pressing a button representing his response.

If correct, the teacher would read the next word pair and progress through the word pairs.

If the answer was incorrect, the teacher would administer a shock to the learner, with the voltage increasing for each wrong answer throughout the experiment.

As the voltage of shocks increased, the learner began making audible protests, such as banging on the wall that separated him from the teacher.

If at any time the teacher indicated a desire to halt the experiment, the experimenter would give specific verbal prods.

“Please continue.”

“The experiment requires that you continue.”

“It is absolutely essential that you continue.”

“You have no other choice, you must go on.”

And if the teacher made specific comments about the shocks, the experimenter would give further prods.

“Although the shocks may be painful, there is no permanent tissue damage, so please go on.”

“Whether the learner likes it or not, you must go on until he has learned all the word pairs correctly.”

If the subject still wished to stop after all successive verbal prods, the experiment was halted.

Otherwise, the experiment was halted after the subject had given the maximum 450-volt shock three times in succession, where the learner would fall silent.

But in reality, there were no real shocks.

No electric chair.

It was all an act on the part of the learner.

The subjects were actually taking part in an experiment to measure the willingness to obey authority.

Moreover, the willingness to do, and keep on doing something they never would normally.

The authority figure was instructing the subjects to perform acts conflicting with their personal conscience.

And the results of the experiment were both interesting and shocking.

It found that a high proportion (65%) of men would fully obey the instructions of the experimenter.

Essentially signalling that most of us can be induced to torture someone else at the behest of an authority figure.

If we can be convinced to torture someone, then we can also be convinced to take other actions.

Provided they are requested by an authority figure.

This knowledge can really help us with our marketing efforts.

Robert Cialdini, referenced previously on this blog, said that “information from a recognised authority can provide us with a valuable shortcut for deciding how to act in a situation.”

We react in an automated fashion to commands from authority and even to symbols of authority even when our instincts dictate we should not.

It’s easier for us to follow than lead.

So in a marketing context, we can either strive to be authoritative or look to authoritative people to promote our products.

Guest posting, referrals, influencer marketing, industry awards, event hosting, original research and thought-leadership are all options.

Just as a confident writing style, testimonials, stats, citations and acknowledgements are also recommended.

All of which can create authority.

And we trust authority.

Just like we place trust in medical doctors or dentists or police officers.

Or Apple Geniuses.

Or TED speakers.

Or Professor Stanley Milgram.

(Or even me telling you all this!)

The Milgram Experiment is a prime example of how authority works.

Of course, there were ethical issues with this experiment.

And the fact that the experiment took place soon after the trial of Nazi war criminal Adolf Eichmann, now believed to be the architect of The Holocaust, placed a sinister cloud over the experiment.

Especially as the outcome suggested that Eichmann and his accomplices were likely following orders.

We won’t go further.

But the experiment demonstrates, just as many similar experiments have, that people follow orders or are more likely to follows orders from an authority figure.

And that people are more obedient than they actually think.

Thanks for reading. If you found this post useful please help share on Twitter!

13 thoughts on “Authority

  1. I am familiar with the Milgram experiment. It was discussed in first year psychology. Amazingly only one “teacher” in the entire experiment refused to give an electric shock beyond what he believed was a safe level. Eventually the entire experiment was scrapped as besides teaching man’s basic obedience to authority, also taught how easily man could be duped into cruelty.

    1. You are right Barbara, it did just that. It also explains why we still see companies, such as those promoting dental products, dress actors in white coats on their adverts.

      Thanks for reading 🙂

  2. I think it may well also depend on how you first learned to ‘obey’ ‘authority figures’. If they were cruel or let you down, it may lessen your ‘obedience’/mean you are more likely to think for yourself – because you have already learned they are not necessarily trustworthy or will reward you. This is of course an ambivalent thing, just as many things are. It could be good it could be bad. At work as a very young person, I was asked to go and tell someone something (I forget its details) which was actually less than true – I refused to do it. I also gained the dislike of my superior and ended up losing the job. Of course in some situations, we might find that more difficult. Today’s advertising is both often misleading, and skewed towards the idea that if ‘consumers’ are addressed (by e-mail or on-line advertising) by their first name, they will respond because it is ‘personalised’. Or they say ‘Our choices based on your interests/previous purchases, etc. How long wil it take before everyone sees into this rubbish? Some of us are actually turned off by it… Interesting subject, the use and abuse of psychology.

  3. Hello — I hope that you are having a wonderful day; your insights, as well as advisory tips, are marvelous and sound, and it was a pleasure reading what you had to say.

    I would like to thank you as well for taking the time to check out my blogs and I also greatly appreciate your support 👍💯😄

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