Chapter 6


Directed Deference

Follow an expert.


SUPPOSE THAT WHILE LEAFING THROUGH THE NEWSPAPER, YOU notice an ad for volunteers to take part in a “study of memory” being done in the psychology department of a nearby university. Let’s suppose further that, finding the idea of such an experiment intriguing, you contact the director of the study, a Professor Stanley Milgram, and make arrangements to participate in an hour-long session. When you arrive at the laboratory suite, you meet two men. One is the researcher in charge of the experiment, as is clearly evidenced by the gray lab coat he wears and the clipboard he carries. The other is a volunteer like yourself who seems average in all respects.

After initial greetings and pleasantries are exchanged, the researcher begins to explain the procedures to be followed. He says that the experiment is a study of how punishment affects learning and memory. Therefore, one participant will have the task of learning pairs of words in a long list until each pair can be recalled perfectly; this person is to be called the Learner. The other participant’s job will be to test the Learner’s memory and to deliver increasingly strong electric shocks for every mistake; this person will be designated the Teacher.

Naturally, you get a bit nervous at this news. And your apprehension increases when, after drawing lots with your partner, you find that you are assigned the Learner role. You hadn’t expected the possibility of pain as part of the study, so you briefly consider leaving. But no, you think, there’s plenty of time for that if need be and, besides, how strong a shock could it be?

After you have had a chance to study the list of word pairs, the researcher straps you into a chair and, with the Teacher looking on, attaches electrodes to your arm. More worried now about the effect of the shock, you inquire into its severity. The researcher’s response is hardly comforting; he says that although the shocks can be extremely painful, they will cause you “no permanent tissue damage.” With that, the researcher and the Teacher leave you alone and go to the next room, where the Teacher asks you the test questions through an intercom system and delivers electric punishment for every wrong response.

As the test proceeds, you quickly recognize the pattern that the Teacher follows: He asks the question and waits for your answer over the intercom. Whenever you err, he announces the voltage of the shock you are about to receive and pulls a level to deliver the punishment. The most troubling thing is that with each error you make, the shock increases by 15 volts.

The first part of the test progresses smoothly. The shocks are annoying but tolerable. Later on, though, as your mistakes accumulate and the shock voltages climb, the punishment begins to hurt enough to disrupt your concentration, which leads to more errors and ever more disruptive shocks. At the 75-, 90-, and 105-volt levels, the pain makes you grunt audibly. At 120 volts, you exclaim into the intercom that the shocks are really starting to hurt. You take one more punishment with a groan and decide that you can’t take much more pain. After the Teacher delivers the 150-volt shock, you shout back into the intercom, “That’s all! Get me out of here! Get me out of here, please! Let me out!”

But instead of the assurance you expect from the Teacher that he and the researcher are coming to release you, the Teacher merely gives you the next test question to answer. Surprised and confused, you mumble the first answer to come into your head. It’s wrong, of course, and the Teacher delivers a 165-volt shock. You scream at the Teacher to stop, to let you out. But he responds only with the next test question—and with the next slashing shock when your frenzied answer is incorrect. You can’t hold down the panic any longer; the shocks are so strong now they make you writhe and shriek. You kick the wall, demand to be released, beg the Teacher to help you. But the test questions continue as before and so do the dreaded shocks—in searing jolts of 195, 210, 225, 240, 255, 270, 285, and 300 volts. You realize that you can’t possibly answer the test correctly now, so you shout to the Teacher that you won’t answer his questions any longer. Nothing changes; the Teacher interprets your failure to respond as an incorrect response and sends another bolt. The ordeal continues in this way until, finally, the power of the shocks stuns you into near paralysis. You can no longer cry out, no longer struggle. You can only feel each terrible electric bite. Perhaps, you think, this total inactivity will cause the Teacher to stop. There can be no reason to continue this experiment. But he proceeds relentlessly, calling out the test questions, announcing the horrid shock levels (about 400 volts now), and pulling the levers. What must this man be like? you wonder in confusion. Why doesn’t he help me? Why won’t he stop?


For most of us, the above scenario reads like a bad dream. To recognize how nightmarish it is, though, we should understand that in most respects it is real. There was such an experiment—actually, a whole series—run by a psychology professor named Milgram in which participants in the Teacher role were willing to deliver continued, intense, and dangerous levels of shock to a kicking, screeching, pleading other person. Only one major aspect of the experiment was not genuine. No real shock was delivered; the Learner, the victim who repeatedly cried out in agony for mercy and release, was not a true subject but an actor who only pretended to be shocked. The actual purpose of Milgram’s study, then, had nothing to do with the effects of punishment on learning and memory. Rather, it involved an entirely different question: When it is their job, how much suffering will ordinary people be willing to inflict on an entirely innocent other person?

The answer is most unsettling. Under circumstances mirroring precisely the features of the “bad dream,” the typical Teacher was willing to deliver as much pain as was available to give. Rather than yield to the pleas of the victim, about two thirds of the subjects in Milgram’s experiment pulled every one of the thirty shock switches in front of them and continued to engage the last switch (450 volts) until the researcher ended the experiment. More alarming still, not one of the forty subjects in this study quit his job as Teacher when the victim first began to demand his release; nor later, when he began to beg for it; nor even later, when his reaction to each shock had become, in Milgram’s words, “definitely an agonized scream.” Not until the 300-volt shock had been sent and the victim had “shouted in desperation that he would no longer provide answers to the memory test” did anyone stop—and even then, it was a distinct minority who did.

These results surprised everyone associated with the project, Milgram included. In fact, before the study began, he asked groups of colleagues, graduate students, and psychology majors at Yale University (where the experiment was performed) to read a copy of the experimental procedures and estimate how many subjects would go all the way to the last (450-volt) shock. Invariably, the answers fell in the 1 to 2 percent range. A separate group of thirty-nine psychiatrists predicted that only about one person in a thousand would be willing to continue to the end. No one, then, was prepared for the behavior patterns that the experiment actually produced.

How can we explain those alarming patterns? Perhaps, as some have argued, it has to do with the fact that the subjects were all males who are known as a group for their aggressive tendencies, or that the subjects didn’t recognize the potential harm that such high shock voltages could cause, or that the subjects were a freakish collection of moral cretins who enjoyed the chance to inflict misery. But there is good evidence against each of these possibilities. First, the subjects’ sex was shown by a later experiment to be irrelevant to their willingness to give all the shocks to the victim; female Teachers were just as likely to do so as the males in Milgram’s initial study.

The explanation that subjects weren’t aware of the potential physical danger to the victim was also examined in a subsequent experiment and found to be wanting. In that version, when the victim was instructed to announce that he had a heart condition and to declare that his heart was being affected by the shock—“That’s all. Get me out of here. I told you I had heart trouble. My heart’s starting to bother me. I refuse to go on. Let me out”—the results were the same as before; 65 percent of the subjects carried out their duties faithfully through the maximum shock.

Finally, the explanation that Milgram’s subjects were a twisted, sadistic bunch not at all representative of the average citizen has proven unsatisfactory as well. The people who answered Milgram’s newspaper ad to participate in his “memory” experiment represented a standard cross section of ages, occupations, and educational levels within our society. What’s more, later on, a battery of personality scales showed these people to be quite normal psychologically, with not a hint of psychosis as a group. They were, in fact, just like you and me; or, as Milgram likes to term it, they are you and me. If he is right that his studies implicate us in their grisly findings, the unanswered question becomes an uncomfortably personal one: What could make us do such things?

Milgram is sure he knows the answer. It has to do, he says, with a deep-seated sense of duty to authority within us all. According to Milgram, the real culprit in the experiments was his subject’s inability to defy the wishes of the boss of the study—the lab-coated researcher who urged and, if need be, directed the subjects to perform their duties, despite the emotional and physical mayhem they were causing.

The evidence supporting Milgram’s obedience to authority explanation is strong. First, it is clear that, without the researcher’s directives to continue, the subjects would have ended the experiment quickly. They hated what they were doing and agonized over their victim’s agony. They implored the researcher to let them stop. When he refused, they went on, but in the process they trembled, they perspired, they shook, they stammered protests and additional pleas for the victim’s release. Their fingernails dug into their own flesh; they bit their lips until they bled; they held their heads in their hands; some fell into fits of uncontrollable nervous laughter. As one outside observer to the experiment wrote:

I observed a mature and initially poised businessman enter the laboratory smiling and confident. Within twenty minutes he was reduced to a twitching, stuttering wreck who was rapidly approaching a point of nervous collapse. He constantly pulled on his earlobe and twisted his hands. At one point he pushed his fist into his forehead and muttered: “Oh, God, let’s stop it.” And yet he continued to respond to every word of the experimenter and obeyed to the end.90

In addition to these observations, Milgram has provided even more convincing evidence for the obedience-to-authority interpretation of his subjects’ behavior. In a later study, for instance, he had the researcher and the victim switch scripts so that the researcher told the Teacher to stop delivering shocks to the victim, while the victim insisted bravely that the Teacher continue. The result couldn’t have been clearer; 100 percent of the subjects refused to give one additional shock when it was merely the fellow subject who demanded it. The identical finding appeared in another version of the experiment in which the researcher and fellow subject switched roles so that it was the researcher who was strapped into the chair and the fellow subject who ordered the Teacher to continue—over the protests of the researcher. Again, not one subject touched another shock lever.

The extreme degree to which subjects in Milgram’s situation were attentive to the wishes of authority was documented in yet another variation of the basic study. In this case, Milgram presented the Teacher with two researchers, who issued contradictory orders; one ordered the Teacher to terminate the shocks when the victim cried out for release, while the other maintained that the experiment should go on. These conflicting instructions reliably produced what may have been the project’s only humor: In tragicomic befuddlement and with eyes darting from one researcher to another, subjects would beseech the pair to agree on a single command they could follow: “Wait, wait. Which is it going to be? One says stop, one says go. Which is it!?” When the researchers remained at loggerheads, the subjects tried frantically to determine who was the bigger boss. Failing this route to obedience with the authority, every subject finally followed his better instincts and ended the shocks. As in the other experimental variations, such a result would hardly be expected had the subjects’ motivations involved some form of sadism or neurotic aggressiveness.91

To Milgram’s mind, evidence of a chilling phenomenon emerges repeatedly from his accumulated data: “It is the extreme willingness of adults to go to almost any lengths on the command of an authority that constitutes the chief finding of the study.” There are sobering implications of this finding for those concerned about the ability of another form of authority—government—to extract frightening levels of obedience from ordinary citizens.92 Furthermore, the finding tells us something about the sheer strength of authority pressures in controlling our behavior. After witnessing Milgram’s subjects squirming and sweating and suffering at their task, could anyone doubt the power of the force that held them there?

For those whose doubts remain, the story of S. Brian Willson might prove instructive. On September 1, 1987, to protest U.S. shipments of military equipment to Nicaragua, Mr. Willson and two other men stretched their bodies across the railroad tracks leading out of the Concord, California, Naval Weapons Station. The protesters were confident that their act would halt the scheduled train’s progress that day, as they had notified Navy and railroad officials of their intent three days before. But the civilian crew, which had been given orders not to stop, never even slowed the train, despite being able to see the protesters six hundred feet ahead. Although two of the men managed to scramble out of harm’s way, Mr. Willson was not quick enough to avoid being struck and having both legs severed below the knee. Because Navy medical corpsmen at the scene refused to treat him or allow him to be taken to the hospital in their ambulance, onlookers—including Mr. Willson’s wife and son—were left to try to stanch the flow of blood for forty-five minutes until a private ambulance arrived.

Amazingly, Mr. Willson, who served four years in Vietnam, does not blame either the crewmen or the corpsmen for his misfortune; he points his finger, instead, at a system that constrained their actions through the pressure to obey: “They were just doing what I did in ’Nam. They were following orders that are part of an insane policy. They’re the fall guys.” Although the crew members shared Mr. Willson’s assessment of them as victims, they did not share his magnanimity. In what is perhaps the most remarkable aspect of the incident, the train crew filed suit against him, requesting punitive damages for the “humiliation, mental anguish, and physical stress” they suffered because he hadn’t allowed them to carry out their orders without cutting off his legs.


Whenever we are faced with so potent a motivator of human action, it is natural to expect that good reasons exist for the motivation. In the case of obedience to authority, even a brief consideration of human social organization offers justification aplenty. A multilayered and widely accepted system of authority confers an immense advantage upon a society. It allows the development of sophisticated structures for resource production, trade, defense, expansion, and social control that would otherwise be impossible. The other alternative, anarchy, is a state that is hardly known for its beneficial effects on cultural groups and one that the social philosopher Thomas Hobbes assures us would render life “solitary, poor, nasty, brutish, and short.” Consequently, we are trained from birth that obedience to proper authority is right and disobedience is wrong. The essential message fills the parental lessons, the schoolhouse rhymes, stories, and songs of our childhood and is carried forward in the legal, military, and political systems we encounter as adults. Notions of submission and loyalty to legitimate rule are accorded much value in each.

Religious instruction contributes as well. The very first book of the Bible, for example, describes how failure to obey the ultimate authority produced the loss of paradise for Adam, Eve, and the rest of the human race. Should that particular metaphor prove too subtle, just a bit further into the Old Testament we can read—in what might be the closest biblical representation of the Milgram experiment—the respectful account of Abraham’s willingness to plunge a dagger through the heart of his young son, because God, without any explanation, ordered it. We learn it this story that the correctness of an action was not adjudged by such considerations as apparent senselessness, harmfulness, injustice, or usual moral standards, but by the mere command of a higher authority. Abraham’s tormented ordeal was a test of obedience, and he—like Milgram’s subjects, who perhaps had learned an early lesson from him—passed.

Stories like those of Abraham and Milgram’s subjects can tell us much about the power of and value for obedience in our culture. In another sense, however, they may be misleading as to the way obedience typically occurs. We rarely agonize to such a degree over the pros and cons of authority’s demands. In fact, our obedience frequently takes place in a click, whirr fashion, with little or no conscious deliberation. Information from a recognized authority can provide us a valuable shortcut for deciding how to act in a situation.

After all, as Milgram himself suggests, conforming to the dictates of authority figures has always had genuine practical advantages for us. Early on, these people (for example, parents, teachers) knew more than we did, and we found that taking their advice proved beneficial—partly because of their greater wisdom and partly because they controlled our rewards and punishments. As adults, the same benefits persist for the same reasons, though the authority figures now appear as employers, judges, and government leaders. Because their positions speak of superior access to information and power, it makes great sense to comply with the wishes of properly constituted authorities. It makes so much sense, in fact, that we often do so when it makes no sense at all.

This paradox is, of course, the same one that attends all major weapons of influence. In this instance, once we realize that obedience to authority is mostly rewarding, it is easy to allow ourselves the convenience of automatic obedience. The simultaneous blessing and bane of such blind obedience is its mechanical character. We don’t have to think; therefore, we don’t. Although such mindless obedience leads us to appropriate action in the great majority of cases, there will be conspicuous exceptions—because we are reacting rather than thinking.

Let’s take an example from one facet of our lives where authority pressures are visible and strong: medicine. Health is enormously important to us. Thus, physicians, who possess large amounts of knowledge and influence in this vital area, hold the position of respected authorities. In addition, the medical establishment has a clearly terraced power and prestige structure. The various kinds of health workers well understand the level of their jobs in this structure; and they well understand, too, that the M.D. sits at the top. No one may overrule the doctor’s judgment in a case, except perhaps, another doctor of higher rank. As a consequence, a long-established tradition of automatic obedience to a doctor’s orders has developed among health-care staffs.

The worrisome possibility arises, then, that when a physician makes a clear error, no one lower in the hierarchy will think to question it—precisely because, once a legitimate authority has given an order, subordinates stop thinking in the situation and start reacting. Mix this kind of click, whirr response into a complex hospital environment and mistakes are certain. Indeed a study done in the early 1980s by the U.S. Health Care Financing Administration showed that, for patient medication alone, the average hospital had a 12 percent daily error rate. A decade later, things had not improved: According to a Harvard University study, 10 percent of all cardiac arrests in hospitals are attributable to medication errors. Errors in the medicine patients receive can occur for a variety of reasons. However, a book entitled Medication Errors: Causes and Prevention by two Temple University pharmacology professors, Michael Cohen and Neil Davis, attributes much of the problem to the mindless deference given the “boss” of the patient’s case: the attending physician. According to Professor Cohen, “in case after case, patients, nurses, pharmacists, and other physicians do not question the prescription.” Take, for example, the strange case of the “rectal earache” reported by Cohen and Davis. A physician ordered ear drops to be administered to the right ear of a patient suffering pain and infection there. But instead of writing out completely 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 duty nurse promptly put the required number of ear drops into the patient’s anus.

Obviously, rectal treatment of an earache made no sense. Yet neither the patient nor the nurse questioned it. The important lesson of this story is that in many situations where a legitimate authority has spoken, what would otherwise make sense is irrelevant. In these instances, we don’t consider the situation as a whole but attend and respond to only one aspect of it.93

Wherever our behaviors are governed in such an unthinking manner, we can be confident that there will be compliance professionals trying to take advantage. We can stay within the field of medicine and see that advertisers have frequently harnessed the respect accorded to doctors in our culture by hiring actors to play the roles of doctors speaking on behalf of the product. My favorite example is a TV commercial featuring actor Robert Young counseling people against the dangers of caffeine and recommending caffeine-free Sanka Brand coffee. The commercial was highly successful, selling so much coffee that it was played for years in several versions. But why should this commercial prove so effective? Why on earth would we take Robert Young’s word for the health consequences of decaffeinated coffee? Because—as the advertising agency that hired him knew perfectly well—he is associated in the minds of the American public with Marcus Welby, M.D., the role he played in an earlier long-running television series. Objectively it doesn’t make sense to be swayed by the comments of a man we know to be just an actor who used to play a doctor. But, as a practical matter, that man moved the Sanka.


From the first time I saw it, the most intriguing feature for me in the Robert Young Sanka commercial was its ability to use the influence of the authority principle without ever providing a real authority. The appearance of authority was enough. This tells us something important about unthinking reactions to authority figures. When in a click, whirr mode, we are often as vulnerable to the symbols of authority as to the substance.

There are several kinds of symbols that can reliably trigger our compliance in the absence of the genuine substance of authority. Consequently, they are employed extensively by those compliance professionals who are short on substance. Con artists, for example, drape themselves with the titles, clothes, and trappings of authority. They love nothing more than to emerge elegantly dressed from a fine automobile and to introduce themselves to their prospective “mark” as Doctor or Judge or Professor or Commissioner Someone. They understand that when they are so equipped, their chances for compliance are greatly increased. Each of these three types of symbols of authority has its own story and is worth a separate look.


Titles are simultaneously the most difficult and the easiest symbols of authority to acquire. To earn one normally takes years of work and achievement. Yet it is possible for somebody who has put in none of this effort to adopt the mere label and receive a kind of automatic deference. As we have seen, TV-commercial actors and con artists do it successfully all the time.

I recently talked with a friend—a faculty member at a well-known eastern university—who provided a telling illustration of how our actions are frequently more influenced by a title than by the nature of the person claiming it. My friend travels quite a bit and often finds himself chatting with strangers in bars, restaurants, and airports. He says that he has learned through much experience never to use his title—professor—during these conversations. When he does, he reports, the tenor of the interaction changes immediately. People who have been spontaneous and interesting conversation partners for the prior half hour become respectful, accepting, and dull. His opinions that earlier might have produced a lively exchange now usually generate extended (and highly grammatical) statements of accord. Annoyed and slightly bewildered by the phenomenon—because, as he says, “I’m still the same guy they’ve been talking to for the past thirty minutes, right?”—my friend now regularly lies about his occupation in such situations.

What a refreshing shift from the more typical pattern in which certain compliance practitioners lie about titles they don’t truly have. In either direction, however, such practiced dishonesty makes the same point about the sufficiency of a mere symbol of authority to influence behavior.

I wonder whether my professor friend—who is physically somewhat short—would be so eager to hide his title if he knew that, besides making strangers more accommodating, it also makes them see him as taller. Studies investigating the way in which authority status affects perceptions of size have found that prestigious titles lead to height distortions. In one 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 of the classes. 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 room, each class was asked to estimate his height. It was found that with each increase in status, the same man grew in perceived height by an average of a half inch, so that as the “professor” he was seen as two and a half inches taller than as the “student.”94

It is worth the time of a small detour to pursue this interesting connection between status and perceived size, since it shows up in a variety of ways. In judging the size of coins, for example, children most overestimate the size of the more valuable coins. And adults are just as guilty of such distortions. In one study, college students drew cards that had monetary values printed on them ranging from $3.00 to –$3.00; they won or lost the amount shown on the cards they picked. Afterward, they were asked to rate the size of each card. Even though all cards were exactly the same size, those that had the more extreme values—positive or negative—were seen as physically larger. Thus it is not necessarily the pleasantness of a thing that makes it seem bigger to us, it is its importance.95

Because we see size and status as related, it is possible for certain individuals to benefit by substituting the former for the latter. In some animal societies, where the status of a male is assigned on the basis of dominance, size is an important factor in determining which male will achieve which status level in the group.96 Usually, in combat with a rival, the larger and more powerful male wins. To avoid the harmful effects to the group of such physical conflict, however, many species have adopted methods that frequently involve more form than fracas. The two males confront each other with showy aggression displays that invariably include size-enhancing tricks. Various mammals arch their backs and bristle their coats; fish extend their fins and puff themselves up with water; birds unfurl and flutter their wings. Very often, this exhibition alone is enough to send one of the histrionic warriors into retreat, leaving the contested status position to his seemingly larger and stronger rival.

Fur, fins, and feathers. Isn’t it interesting how these most delicate of parts can be exploited to give the impression of substance and weight? There are two lessons for us here. One is specific to the association between size and status. The connection of those two things can be profitably employed by individuals who are able to fake the first to gain the appearance of the second. This is precisely why con men, even those of average or slightly above-average height, commonly wear lifts in their shoes.

The other lesson is more general: The outward signs of power and authority frequently may be counterfeited with the flimsiest of materials. Let’s return to the realm of titles for an example—an example that involves what, in several ways, is the scariest experiment I know. A group of researchers, composed of doctors and nurses with connections to three midwestern hospitals, became increasingly concerned with the extent of mechanical obedience to doctors’ orders on the part of nurses. It seemed to the researchers that even highly trained and skilled nurses were not using that training or skill sufficiently to check on a doctor’s judgment; instead, when confronted with a physician’s directives, they would simply defer.

Earlier, we saw how this process accounted for the case of the rectally administered ear drops. But the midwestern researchers took things several steps further. First, they wanted to find out whether such cases were isolated incidents or representative of a widespread phenomenon. Second, they wanted to examine the problem in the context of a serious treatment error—the gross overprescription of an unauthorized drug to a hospital patient. Finally, they wanted to see what would happen if they physically removed the authority figure from the situation and substituted an unfamiliar voice on the phone, offering only the frailest evidence of authority—the claimed title “doctor.”

To twenty-two separate nurses’ stations on various surgical, medical, pediatric, and psychiatric wards, one of the researchers made an identical phone call in which he identified himself as a hospital physician and directed the answering nurse to give twenty milligrams of a drug (Astrogen) to a specific ward patient. There were four excellent reasons for a nurse’s caution in response to this order: (1) The prescription was transmitted by phone, in direct violation of hospital policy. (2) The medication itself was unauthorized; Astrogen had not been cleared for use nor placed on the ward stock list. (3) The prescribed dosage was obviously and dangerously excessive. The medication containers clearly stated that the “maximum daily dose” was only ten milligrams, half of what had been ordered. (4) The directive was given by a man the nurse had never met, seen, or even talked with before on the phone. Yet, in 95 percent of the instances, the nurses went straightaway to the ward medicine cabinet, where they secured the ordered dosage of Astrogen and started for the patient’s room to administer it. It was at this point that they were stopped by a secret observer, who revealed the nature of the experiment.

The results are frightening, indeed. That 95 percent of regular staff nurses complied unhesitatingly with a patently improper instruction of this sort must give us all great reason for concern as potential hospital patients. Given the recent U.S. Health Care Financing Administration estimate of a 12 percent daily-medication error rate in American hospitals, stays of longer than a week make it likely that we will be recipients of such an error. What the midwestern study shows is that the mistakes are hardly limited to trivial slips in the administration of harmless ear drops or the like, but extend to grave and dangerous blunders.

In interpreting their unsettling findings, the researchers came to an instructive conclusion:

In a real-life situation corresponding to the experimental one, there would, in theory, be two professional intelligences, the doctor’s and the nurse’s, working to ensure that a given procedure be undertaken in a manner beneficial to the patient or, at the very least, not detrimental to him. The experiment strongly suggests, however, that one of these intelligences is, for all practical purposes, nonfunctioning.97

It seems that, in the face of a physician’s directives, the nurses unhooked their “professional intelligences” and moved to a click, whirr form of responding. None of their considerable medical training or knowledge was engaged in the decision of what to do. Instead, because obedience to legitimate authority had always been the most preferred and efficient action in their work setting, they had become willing to err on the side of automatic obedience. It is all the more instructive that they had traveled so far in this direction that their error had come not in response to genuine authority but to its most easily falsified symbol—a bare title.98


A second kind of authority symbol that can trigger our mechanical compliance is clothing. Though more tangible than a title, the cloak of authority is every bit as fakable. Police bunco files bulge with records of con artists whose artistry includes the quick change. In chameleon style, they adopt the hospital white, priestly black, army green, or police blue that the situation requires for maximum advantage. Only too late do their victims realize that the garb of authority is hardly its guarantee.

A series of studies by social psychologist Leonard Bickman gives an indication of how difficult it can be to resist requests that come from figures in authority attire. Bickman’s basic procedure was to ask passersby on the street to comply with some sort of odd request (to pick up a discarded paper bag, to stand on the other side of a bus-stop sign). In half of the instances, the requester—a young man—was dressed in normal street clothes; the rest of the time, he was dressed in a security guard’s uniform. Regardless of the type of request, many more people obeyed the requester when he wore the guard costume.

Especially revealing was one version of the experiment in which the requester stopped pedestrians and pointed to a man standing by a parking meter fifty feet away. The requester, whether dressed normally or as a security guard, always said the same thing to the pedestrian: “You see that guy over there by the meter? He’s overparked but doesn’t have any change. Give him a dime!” The requester then turned a corner and walked away so that by the time the pedestrian reached the meter, the requester was out of sight. The power of his uniform lasted, however, even after he was long gone: Nearly all the pedestrians complied with his directive when he had worn the guard costume, but fewer than half did so when he had dressed normally. It is interesting to note that later on, Bickman found college students able to guess with considerable accuracy the percentage of compliance that had occurred in the experiment when the requester wore street clothes (50 percent vs. the actual 42 percent); yet the students greatly underestimated the percentage of compliance when he was in uniform (63 percent vs. the actual 92 percent).99

Less blatant in its connotation than a uniform, but nonetheless effective, is another kind of attire that has traditionally bespoken authority status in our culture: the well-tailored business suit. It, too, can evoke a telling form of deference from total strangers. Research conducted in Texas, for instance, arranged for a thirty-one-year-old man to violate the law by crossing the street against the traffic light on a variety of occasions. In half of the cases, he was dressed in a freshly pressed business suit and tie; on the other occasions, he wore a work shirt and trousers. The researchers watched from a distance and counted the number of pedestrians waiting at the corner who followed the man across the street. Like the children of Hamelin who crowded after the Pied Piper, three and a half times as many people swept into traffic behind the suited jaywalker. In this case, though, the magic came not from his pipe but his pinstripes.100

It is noteworthy that the two types of authority apparel shown by the above research to be influential—the guard uniform and business suit—are combined deftly by confidence men in a fraud called the bank-examiner scheme. The target of the swindle can be anyone, but elderly persons living alone are preferred. The con begins when a man dressed in a properly conservative three-piece business suit appears at the door of a likely victim. Everything about his clothing sends a message of propriety and respectability. The white shirt is starched; the wing-tip shoes glow deeply. His suit is not trendy but classic: The lapels are three inches wide—no more, no less; the cloth is heavy and substantial, even in July; the tones are muted, business blue, business gray, business black.

He explains to his intended victim—perhaps a widow he secretly followed home from the bank a day or two earlier—that he is a professional bank examiner who, in the course of auditing the books of her bank, has found some seeming irregularities. He thinks he has spotted the culprit, a bank officer who is regularly doctoring reports of transactions in certain accounts. He says that the widow’s account may be one of these, but he can’t be sure until he has hard evidence. Therefore, he has come to ask for her cooperation. Would she help out by withdrawing her savings so a team of examiners and responsible bank officials can trace the record of the transaction as it passes across the suspect’s desk?

Often the appearance and presentation of the “bank examiner” are so impressive that the victim never thinks to check on their validity with even a simple phone call. Instead, she drives to the bank, withdraws all her money, and returns home with it to wait with the “examiner” for word on the success of the trap. When the message comes, it is delivered by a uniformed bank guard, who arrives after closing hours to announce that all is well—apparently the widow’s account was not one of those being tampered with. Greatly relieved, the “examiner” offers gracious thanks and, since the bank is now conveniently closed, instructs the guard to return the lady’s money to the vault, to save her the trouble of doing so the next day. With smiles and handshakes all around, the guard takes the funds and leaves the “examiner” to express a few more minutes of thanks before he, too, exits. Naturally, as the victim eventually discovers, the “guard” is no more a guard than the “examiner” is an examiner. What they are is a pair of bunco artists who have recognized the capacity of carefully counterfeited uniforms to click us into mesmerized compliance with “authority.”


Aside from its function in uniforms, clothing can symbolize a more generalized type of authority when it serves an ornamental purpose. Finely styled and expensive clothes carry an aura of status and position, as do trappings such as jewelry and cars. The last of these status symbols is particularly interesting in the United States, where “the American love affair with the automobile” gives it unusual significance.

According to the findings of a study done in the San Francisco Bay area, owners of prestige autos receive a special kind of deference from us. The 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. The motorists had little patience with the economy-car driver: Nearly all sounded their horns, and the majority of these did so more than once; two simply rammed into his rear bumper. So intimidating was the aura of the prestige automobile, however, that 50 percent of the motorists waited respectfully behind it, never touching their horns, until it drove on.101

Later on, the researchers asked college students what they would have done in such situations. Compared to the true findings of the experiment, the students consistently underestimated the time it would take them to honk at the luxury car. The male students were especially inaccurate, feeling that they would honk faster at the prestige- than the economy-car driver; of course, the study itself showed just the opposite. Note the similarity of this pattern to much other research on authority pressures. As in Milgram’s research, the midwestern hospital-nurses’ study, and the security-guard-uniform experiment, people were unable to predict correctly how they or others would react to authority influence. In each instance, the effect of such influence was grossly underestimated. This property of authority status may account for much of its success as a compliance device. Not only does it work forcefully on us, but it also does so unexpectedly.


One protective tactic we can use against authority status is to remove its element of surprise. Because we typically misperceive the profound impact of authority (and its symbols) on our actions, we are at the disadvantage of being insufficiently cautious about its presence in compliance situations. A fundamental form of defense against this problem, therefore, is a heightened awareness of authority power. When this awareness is coupled with a recognition of how easily authority symbols can be faked, the benefit will be a properly guarded approach to situations involving authority-influence attempts.

Sounds simple, right? And in a way it is. A better understanding of the workings of authority influence should help us resist it. Yet there is a perverse complication—the familiar one inherent in all weapons of influence: We shouldn’t want to resist altogether, or even most of the time. Generally, authority figures know what they are talking about. Physicians, judges, corporate executives, legislative leaders, and the like have typically gained their positions because of superior knowledge and judgment. Thus, as a rule, their directives offer excellent counsel. The trick is to be able to recognize without much strain or vigilance when authority promptings are best followed and when they should be resisted.

Posing two questions to ourselves can help enormously to accomplish this trick. The first is to ask, when we are confronted with what appears to be an authority figure’s influence attempt, “Is this authority truly an expert?” The question is helpful because it focuses our attention on a pair of crucial pieces of information: the authority’s credentials and the relevance of those credentials to the topic at hand. By orienting in this simple way toward the evidence for authority status, we can avoid the major pitfalls of automatic deference. An illustration or two is in order.

Let’s examine the highly successful Robert Young Sanka-coffee commercial in this light. If, rather than responding to his “Marcus Welby, M.D.” association, people had focused on Mr. Young’s actual status as an authority, I am confident that the commercial would not have had so long and productive a run. Obviously, Robert Young does not possess a physician’s training or knowledge. We all know that. What he does possess, however, is a physician’s title, “M.D.” Now, clearly, it is an empty title, connected to him in our minds through the device of playacting. We all know that, too. But isn’t it fascinating how, when we are whirring along, what is obvious often doesn’t matter unless we pay specific attention to it?

That is why the “Is this authority truly an expert?” question can be so valuable: It brings our attention to the obvious. It channels us effortlessly away from a focus on possibly meaningless symbols to a consideration of genuine authority credentials. What’s more, the question impels us to distinguish between relevant authorities and irrelevant authorities. And this is a distinction that is easy to forget when the push of authority pressure is combined with the rush of modern life. The Texas pedestrians who bustled into city traffic behind a business-suited jaywalker offer a prime example. Even if the man had been the business authority his clothes suggested he might be, he was unlikely to be a greater authority on crossing the street than other people, including those who followed him into traffic.

Still, they did follow, as if his label, “authority,” overwhelmed the vital difference between relevant and irrelevant forms. Had they bothered to ask themselves whether he represented a true expert in the situation, someone whose actions reflected superior knowledge there, I expect the result would have been quite different. The same process applies to Robert Young, a man who is not without expertise. He has fashioned a long career with many achievements in a difficult business. But his skills and knowledge are as an actor, not a doctor. When, in viewing the famous coffee commercial, we focus on his true credentials, we will realize quickly that he should be no more believed than any other successful actor who claims that Sanka is healthy.


Suppose, though, we are confronted with an authority we determine is a relevant expert. Before submitting to authority influence, it would be wise to ask a second simple question: “How truthful can we expect the expert to be here?” Authorities, even the best informed, may not present their information honestly to us. Therefore we need to consider their trustworthiness in the situation. In fact, most of the time, we do. We allow ourselves to be much more swayed by experts who seem to be impartial than by those who have something to gain by convincing us; and this has been shown by research to be true around the world.102 By wondering how an expert stands to benefit from our compliance, we give ourselves another safety net against undue and automatic influence. Even knowledgeable authorities in a field will not persuade us until we are satisfied that their messages represent the facts faithfully.

When asking ourselves about such a person’s trustworthiness, we should keep in mind a little tactic compliance practitioners often use to assure us of their sincerity: They will seem to argue to a degree against their own interests. Correctly done, this can be a subtly effective device for proving their honesty. Perhaps they will mention a small shortcoming in their position or product (“Oh, the disadvantages of Benson & Hedges”). Invariably, though, the drawback will be a secondary one that is easily overcome by more significant advantages—“Listerine, the taste you hate three times a day”; “Avis: We’re number two, but we try harder”; “L’Oréal, a bit more expensive and worth it.” By establishing their basic truthfulness on minor issues, the compliance professionals who use this ploy can then be more believable when stressing the important aspects of their argument.103

I have seen this approach used with devastating effect in a place that few of us recognize as a compliance setting: the restaurant. It is no secret that because of shamelessly low wages, servers in restaurants must supplement their earnings with tips. Leaving the sine qua non of good service aside, the most successful waiters and waitresses know certain tricks for increasing tips. They also know that the larger a customer’s bill, the larger the amount of money likely to come to them in a standard gratuity. In these two regards, then—building the size of the customer’s charge and building the percentage of that charge that is given as a tip—servers regularly act as compliance agents.

Hoping to find out how they operate, I applied for waiter openings at several fairly expensive restaurants. Without experience, though, the best I could do was to land a busboy job that, as things turned out, provided me a propitious vantage point from which to watch and analyze the action. Before long, I realized what the other employees already knew—that the most successful waiter in the place was Vincent, who somehow arranged for patrons to order more and tip higher than for anyone else; in fact, the other servers were not even close to him in weekly earnings.

So I began to linger in my duties around Vincent’s tables to observe his style. I quickly learned that his style was to have no single style. He had a repertoire of them, each ready to be called on under the appropriate circumstances. When the customers were a family, he was effervescent—even slightly clownish—directing his remarks as often to the children as to the adults. With a young couple on a date, he became formal and a bit imperious in an attempt to intimidate the young man (to whom he spoke exclusively) into ordering and tipping lavishly. With an older, married couple, he retained the formality but dropped the superior air in favor of a respectful orientation to both members of the couple. Should the patron be dining alone, Vincent selected a friendly demeanor—cordial, conversational, and warm.

But Vincent reserved the trick of seeming to argue against his own interests for large parties of eight to twelve people. Here his technique was veined with genius. When it was time for the first person, normally a lady, to order, he went into his act. No matter what she selected, Vincent reacted identically: His brow furrowed, his hand hovered above his order pad, and after looking quickly over his shoulder for the manager, he leaned conspiratorially toward the table to report for all to hear, “I’m afraid that is not as good tonight as it normally is. Might I recommend instead the____or the____?” (Here Vincent suggested a pair of menu items that were fifty cents or so less expensive than the dish the patron had selected initially.) “They are both excellent tonight.”

With this single maneuver, Vincent engaged several important principles of influence. First, even those who did not take his suggestions felt that Vincent had done them a favor by offering valuable information to help them order. Everyone felt grateful, and consequently the rule for reciprocity would work in his favor when it came time to decide on his gratuity. But besides hiking the percentage of his tip, Vincent’s maneuver also placed him in a favorable position to increase the size of the table’s order. It established him as an authority on the current stores of the house; he clearly knew what was and wasn’t good that night. Moreover—and this is where seeming to argue against his own interests came in—it proved him to be a trustworthy informant, because he recommended dishes that were slightly less expensive than originally ordered. Rather than trying to line his own pockets, he seemed to have the customers’ best interests at heart.

To all appearances, he was at once knowledgeable and honest, a combination that gave him great credibility. And Vincent was quick to exploit the advantage of this credible image. When the party had finished giving their food orders, he would say, “Very well, and would you like me to suggest or select some wine to go with your meals?” As I watched the scene repeated almost nightly, there was a notable consistency to the customers’ reactions—smiles, nods, and for the most part, general assent.

Even from the distance of my vantage point, one could read their thoughts from their faces. “Sure,” they seemed to say, “you know what’s good here, and you’re obviously on our side. Tell us what to get.” Looking pleased, Vincent, who did know his vintages, would respond with some excellent (and costly) choices. He was similarly persuasive when it came time for dessert decisions. Patrons who otherwise would have passed up the dessert course or shared with a friend were swayed to partake fully by Vincent’s rapturous descriptions of the Baked Alaska and chocolate mousse. Who, after all, is more believable than a demonstrated expert of proven sincerity?

By combining the factors of reciprocity and credible authority into a single, elegant maneuver, Vincent was able to inflate substantially both the percentage of his tip and the base charge on which it was figured. His proceeds from this trick were handsome, indeed. But notice that much of his profit came from an apparent lack of concern for personal profit. Seeming to argue against his financial interests served those interests extremely well.

From a Young Businessman

“About two years ago, I was trying to sell my old car because I’d already bought a new one. One day I passed a used-car lot with a sign reading, WE WILL SELL YOUR CAR FOR MORE. Just what I wanted, I thought; so I stopped in to talk with the owner. I told him I wanted to get about three thousand dollars for my old car, and he said he thought I should be asking for a lot more because it was worth at least thirty-five-hundred dollars. This came as a real surprise to me, because the way their consignment system worked, the larger my asking price for the car, the less money was left over for them to keep after they sold it to somebody. Therefore, by telling me to ask for more than three thousand dollars, they were cutting off their own profits. Just like your Vincent-the-waiter example, they were seeming to argue against their own interests so I’d see them as trustworthy authorities; but I didn’t realize this until much later. Anyway, I went along with the owner’s idea that my car was worth more than I’d first thought, and I set my asking price at thirty-five-hundred dollars.

“After they’d had my car on their lot for a couple of days, they called saying that someone was really interested in it, but that the price was a little too high. Would I be willing to drop my price by two hundred dollars to sell the car? Convinced that they had my interests at heart, I agreed. The next day they called back to say the the buyer’s financing had fallen through and that he couldn’t buy the car. In the next two weeks, I got two more calls from the dealership, each asking me to drop my price two hundred dollars to seal a sale to some customer. Both times I OK’d it because I still believed they were trustworthy. But each time, the alleged deal fell through. I was suspicious enough to call a friend whose family was in the car business. He said this was an old trick designed to get sellers like me to reduce their asking prices to super low levels, giving the dealership big profits when they finally sold the car.

“So, I went over there and took my car. As I was leaving, they were still trying to persuade me to let them keep it because they had a ‘hot prospect’ who they were sure would buy it if I’d only knock off another two hundred dollars.”

Once again in a Reader’s Report we can see the influence of the contrast principle combining with the principle of primary interest. In this case, after the thirty-five-hundred-dollar figure was set, each two-hundred-dollar nick seemed small by comparison.

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