How to Persuade People
I remember being a young child, while I wasn’t particularly naughty, I did have my moments. There were times where I would really challenge the authority of my mother, really I was just testing the water to see how far I could go. I recall a couple of times I was so bad she pretended to call the police.
She would pick up the receiver but secretly keep her finger on the button. Then she would dial 999 (The police emergency number) and tell the supposed operator that she had a very naughty little boy here and could they send an officer straight away.
This would terrify me and I would instantly drop the bad behavior and cling to my mom’s legs, begging her to call back and cancel the policeman. I sobbed and pleaded that I would be good from now on. Eventually, when she was convinced I meant it, she would make a second fake call informing the police that I had promised to be good.
But why was I so afraid?
I was seven years old; I had had no experience with the police. It wasn’t like I was up late each night watching hard-nosed cops in violent TV shows. My only real experience of the police was via cartoons and the like. The reason I became so afraid was because of the built-in law of authority.
This is a powerful automatic response of human beings. Social psychologist Stanley Milgram is perhaps most famous for demonstrating the power of this law. Over his career he comprehensively researched the effect of authority on compliance. He concluded people comply either out of fear or out of a need to appear cooperative, even when acting against their own better judgment and preferences.
Milgram’s timeless yet controversial experiment illustrates people’s reluctance to challenge those who abuse power.
Milgram enlisted subjects for his experiments from a variety of walks of life. Respondents were told the research would examine the impacts of punishment on learning ability. They were offered a token cash gift for participating. Although respondents believed they had an equal chance of playing the role of a student or a teacher, the process was rigged, so all participants wound up playing the teacher.
Learners & Teachers
The learner was an actor working as an accomplice of the researcher.
” Teachers” were asked to administer progressively severe electric shocks to the “learner” when questions were answered incorrectly. In truth, the only electric shocks delivered in the experiment were single 45-volt shock samples given to each teacher. This was done to provide teachers a feeling for the shocks they thought they would be discharging.
Shock levels were labeled from 15 to 450 volts. Besides the numerical scale, verbal anchors contributed to the frightful appearance of the instrument. Beginning from the lower end, jolt levels were tagged: “slight shock,” “moderate shock,” “strong shock,” “extreme shock,” “intense shock,” and “extreme intensity shock.” The next 2 anchors were “Danger: Severe Shock,” and, past that, a simple but ominous skull and crossbones.
In response to the supposed jolts, the “learner” (actor) would begin to grunt at 75 volts; complain at 125 volts; ask to be released at 175 volts; plead with increasing vigor, next; and let out agonized screams at 285 volts. Eventually, in desperation, the learner was to yell loudly and complain of heart pain.
At some point, the actor was told to reach a breaking point and refuse to answer any more questions. As a result at around 340 volts the actor would decide simply not to answer any more questions and fall silent. Hoping that if there were no wrong answers then there could be no more punishment.
However, the teachers were instructed to deal with silence as a wrong answer and administer the next shock level to the student anyway.
If at any point the innocent teacher was reluctant to give the shocks, the experimenter would pressure him to continue. Such demands would take the form of progressively severe statements, such as “The experiment requires that you continue.”.
What do you think was the average voltage given by teachers before they refused to administer further shocks? What percentage of teachers, if any, do you think went up to the top current of 450?
Some teachers refused to continue with the shocks early on, despite prompting from the experimenter. This is the kind of response Milgram expected as the norm. But Milgram was shocked to discover those who questioned authority were in the minority. Sixty-five percent (65%) of the teachers were willing to continue to the maximum voltage level.
Participants demonstrated a range of adverse emotions about continuing. Some pleaded with the learner, asking the actor to answer questions carefully. Others started to laugh nervously and behave strangely in diverse ways. Some subjects appeared cold, helpless, sad, or arrogant. Some thought they had killed the learner.
Nevertheless, attendants continued to obey, discharging the full shock to learners. One man who wished to ditch the experiment was told the trial must proceed. Instead of challenging the judgment of the experimenter, he went ahead, repeating to himself, “It’s got to go on, it’s got to go on.”.
Milgram’s experiment included some variations. In one, the learner was not only visible, but teachers were asked to compel the learner’s hand to the shock plate so they could deliver the punishment. Less obedience was extracted from subjects in this case. In another variant, teachers were told to administer whatever current they desired to wrong answers.
Teachers averaged 83 volts, and only 2.5 percent of participants used the full 450 volts available. This shows most individuals were decent, average folks, not twisted and evil individuals. They submitted only under compulsion.
In general, more submission was evoked from “teachers” when (1) the authority figure was nearby; (2) teachers felt they could hand down accountability to others, and (3) experiments took place under the auspices of a reputable association.
Participants were debriefed shortly after the experiment and showed great relief at finding they had not hurt the student. One wept with emotion when he saw the student alive and explained that he assumed he had killed him. But what was different about those who obeyed and those who resisted? Milgram divided individuals into 3 categories:.
Obeyed but justified their actions:
Some obedient individuals gave up responsibility for their actions, pointing the finger at the researcher. If anything had happened to the learner, they rationalized, it would have been the experimenter’s fault. Others had shifted the blame to the learner: “He was so stupid and obstinate he deserved to be shocked.”.
Obeyed but blamed themselves:
Others felt terrible about what they had done and were quite harsh on themselves. Participants of this cluster would, perhaps, be more likely to challenge authority if confronted with a comparable situation in the future.
Finally, defiant subjects questioned the authority of the experimenter and maintained there was a higher moral imperative calling for the safety of the learner over the demands of the researcher. A few of these people felt they were accountable to a higher authority.
As with all the laws of persuasion and influence I talk about in Bulletproof Persuasion and on my how to influence people course. They do not care whether you believe in them or not. The law of authority is no different.
This strange form of human behavior demonstrated it’s devastating power in the 1990’s in England. A respected family doctor called Harold Shipman went on a killing spree with his elderly patients. His crimes undetected for many years simply because he was a doctor.
The Guardian newspaper report on the court case said that Harold Shipman was Britain’s most prolific serial killer. According to the public inquiry into his crimes, the former family doctor murdered at least 250 of his patients over 23 yrs. He was found dead in his cell at Wakefield prison on January 13, 2004, having hanged himself. The 57-year-old was serving 15 life sentences.
Shipman was convicted at Preston crown court in January 2000 of the homicide of 15 elderly patients with lethal hypodermic injections of painkiller. A public inquiry was launched in June 2001 to investigate the extent of his offenses, how they went unnoticed for so long, and what could be done to avoid a repeat of the misfortune.
His first victim, Eva Lyons, was killed in March 1975 on the eve of her 71st birthday while Shipman was working at the Abraham medical practice in Todmorden. The following year the first clues surfaced that Shipman was no regular reputable General Practitioner.
In February 1976, he was convicted of acquiring the morphine-like medication pethidine by fraudulence and deception to supply his dependency to the drug. Later that year, in the name of a dying client, he acquired sufficient morphine to murder 360 individuals.
After being given psychological and substance treatment in York, he reappeared as a Family Doctor in Hyde, Greater Manchester. His technique of murder was unfailing: a quick shot of diamorphine – pharmaceutical heroin.
He killed 71 patients while at the Donnybrook practice in the town and the rest while a single-handed practitioner at his surgery in Market Street. The majority of his victims – 171 – were females, compared with 44 males. The oldest was 93-year-old Anne Cooper and the youngest 41-year-old Peter Lewis.
When Shipman was fired from the Todmorden clinical practice for forging doctor’s prescriptions, he received a considerable fine but was not struck off by the General Medical Council (GMC), the regulatory body for medical professionals. Rather, it sent him a stiff warning letter and allowed him to continue working. This meant that at this moment any hiring manager or patients who inquired about Shipman would most likely not have been told about his conviction.
By the late 1990s, his criminal offense was ignored, and he appeared to be a devoted, caring professional. But in 1998, Hyde funeral directors became dubious at the quantity of his patients who were dying, and the nearby medical practice learned that the fatality rate of Shipman’s patients was nearly 10 times greater than their own.
They reported their concerns to the local coroner who in turn called in Greater Manchester police.
But the authorities investigation failed to execute even the most fundamental checks, including whether Shipman had a criminal record. Nor did they ask the GMC what was on his file. Neither Shipman himself not relatives of the dead patients were contacted.
A Proficient Liar
The officials did ask the regional health authority to inspect the records of 19 deceased patients for any inconsistencies between the clinical notes and the cause of passing on the death certificate. But the medical adviser was unaware that the doctor he was checking out had a history of forging legal documents – and Shipman had included false illnesses to his casualties’ files to cover his tracks.
Consequently, the investigation discovered no reason for concern and the GP was free to eliminate three more of his patients before ultimately being apprehended in February 1999.
As shocking as the Shipman story is, it is important to understand that this law can be used for better-intentioned practices too. I will close this blog post with a few words from the master of persuasion Robert Cialdini.
On his website he explains how professionals can improve their closure rate by invoking the law of authority: Physiotherapists, for example, can persuade more of their patients to comply with recommended exercise programs if they display their medical diplomas on the walls of their consulting rooms. People are more likely to give change for a parking meter to a complete stranger if that requester wears a uniform rather than casual clothes.
What the science is telling us is that it’s important to signal to others what makes you a credible, knowledgeable authority before you make your influence attempt. Of course, this can present problems; you can hardly go around telling potential customers how brilliant you are, but you can certainly arrange for someone to do it for you.
The Master of Persuasion
One group of real estate agents was able to increase both the number of property appraisals and the number of subsequent contracts that they wrote by arranging for reception staff who answered customer inquiries to first mention their colleagues’ credentials and expertise.
So, customers interested in letting a property were told “Lettings? Let me connect you with Sandra, who has over 15 years’ experience letting properties in this area.” Customers who wanted more information about selling properties were told “Speak to Peter, our head of sales. He has over 20 years’ experience selling properties. I’ll put you through now.”
The impact of this expert introduction led to a 20% rise in the number of appointments and a 15% increase in the number of signed contracts.
If you are interested in learning more about how to influence people. Click here for details of Craig Beck’s Persuasion University course.