part 1 of a 2-part article
This is a true story …
Decked out in a uniform, badge, and baton, a television reporter stationed himself in front of a Las Vegas bank. On the ATM, he placed a sign with large lettering that read OUT OF ORDER — GIVE DEPOSITS TO GUARD ON DUTY. In the center of the sign was the shape of a large, gold badge.
When bank customers approached the ATM, the “guard” smiled, looked them straight in the eyes, and asked, “Do you need to make a deposit or a withdrawal?”
No bank would ever allow a guard to conduct private transactions like this, but were people suspicious? Not a bit. Without hesitation, customer after customer handed over not only cash and checks, but also Social Security numbers, credit cards, account numbers, PIN codes … private information that in the wrong hands could leave them penniless.
In fact, out of 10 customers, only 1 showed any signs of hesitation. And even that customer eventually gave in.
In two hours, the reporter gained access to over $10,000 in check deposits and account balances.
When the reporter revealed the deception and asked the flabbergasted victims why they so readily handed him money and private information, they all gave pretty much the same answer: “Because of the uniform. Because of the sign.” In other words, “Because you looked authoritative.”
The Rule of Authority
This story demonstrates the principle that people are instantly deferential to those in positions of power. It’s not just security guards and people in uniforms who command our obedience, though, it’s anyone with authority, special knowledge, impressive credentials, or even an air of confidence.
And it’s not just those with actual power to whom we kowtow, it’s anyone with the “symbols” of authority. In other words, when someone “appears” to be authoritative, we act as if they are, regardless of their actual position.
What kind of symbols do we look for in evaluating authority? Here are three of the most basic:
1) Titles: such as Dr., Professor, Ph.D., President, or Chairman
2) Clothing: such as hospital whites, army greens, priestly black, police blues, or even a gray business suit
3) Trappings: anything that usually goes along with particular positions, such as guns and badges for security personnel, prestigious letterhead for executives, expensive cars or watches for successful entrepreneurs, etc.
Why do people respond to authority figures? Because we grow up surrounded by those bigger, smarter, and more experienced than ourselves. We are taught to do what we’re told. And we’re often punished for disobedience.
First it’s our parents. Later it’s our teachers. Then it’s policemen, politicians, bosses, lawyers, priests, and gurus. And in this age of narrow specialization, we’re more prone than ever to look to experts (or those we perceive to be experts) to give us the answers and show us the way.
Which diet will take off those extra pounds? Well, here’s a nationally-recognized weight-loss authority who says she has the answer. She’s got a doctorate in nutrition. She dresses in exercise gear. And her books and tapes are in every book store. Titles, clothes, and trappings … sure, we’ll give it a whirl.
And that’s where it gets good. Because, since our reaction to authority is so powerful and immediate, those “in the know” can use this principle to get a “Yes” response more often.
Authority is good, but Credibility is better …
Now that I’ve revealed the Rule of Authority, you’re already thinking how you can use this idea in your promotions. To pump up the credentials of your letter signer. To add impact to your on-air spokesperson. To change the look and tone of your messages to feel more confident and authoritative.
And that’s exactly what we’ll discuss in Part 2.