If a person in a position of authority ordered you to deliver a 450-volt electric shock to someone else, would you do it?
Most people would categorically state NO.
Yet in the 1960s, Yale University psychologist Stanley Milgram conducted a series of experiments showing that the reality is disturbingly different.
Milgram, like all right-thinking people, was profoundly disturbed by what happened in the concentration camps of World War II. He followed Adolph Eichmann’s trial with interest: Eichmann’s defence was that he was simply following orders.
So he asked, when it is their job, how much suffering will ordinary people be willing to inflict on an innocent person?
Surely, anybody who could do such a thing must be a monster, inhuman? Right?
The answer is truly disturbing.
He showed that, in fact, when an authority figure ordered subjects to deliver just such a strong electric shock to someone, two-thirds of those subjects complied.
Milgram recruited participants using newspaper ads.
When participants arrived, they were faced with an alarming-looking shock generator that started at 30 volts and increased by 15 volts a time up to 450 volts. There were many switches, labelled with “slight shock”, “moderate shock”, and “danger: severe shock”. The final switches were labelled, simply and ominously, “XXX”.
Each participant took the “teacher” role. He would shock the “student” every time the student answered a question incorrectly.
The participant believed he was dealing real shocks to the student, but in fact the student was part of the experiment. There were, of course, no real electric shocks – only actors.
As the experiment progressed, the participant could hear the student plead for release or even complain of a heart condition. The shocks continued. The complaints became more frantic.
Most participants asked the researcher if they should continue. The researcher gave commands to prod the subject along.
1. “Please continue.”
2. “The experiment requires that you continue.”
3. “It is absolutely essential that you continue.”
4. “You have no other choice, you must go on.”
Before the experiment, the researchers predicted that 3% of subjects would deliver the maximum shock.
In fact, 65% delivered the maximum shock in the face of the student’s apparent extreme pain and fear.
Why? What would drive ‘normal’ people to such cruelty?
Many of the subjects became extremely agitated, distraught and angry at the experimenter. Yet they continued to follow orders all the way to the end.
They did so because of their deep-seated sense of duty to authority. Something we all share. It makes perfect evolutionary sense: we look to our leaders to see what to do, how to behave.
Leaving aside the disturbing questions Milgram’s experiments raise about human nature, established authorities and what they can make us do, how is this relevant to marketing?
Well, as I said – deference to authority is usually a helpful trait. It provides people with a sense of certainty: that what they’re choosing to do is right and good for them.
This applies in business as anywhere else. If you can establish yourself as an authority in your field, you’ll become the natural choice. People will listen to you. They’ll trust you. And they’ll buy from you.
How can you establish yourself as an authority?
All sorts of ways. You can (and you should) write a book. Contribute articles to the local and trade press. Get yourself on the radio for interviews. Offer training courses. Be confident in everything you do.
Be honest, helpful, truthful – and, as with all these weapons of influence, use them for good. If you want an example of what not to do, look at “Dr” Gillian McKeith. This odious woman bought herself a qualification on a correspondence course from a non-accredited American university and gave herself the title “Doctor”.
She now peddles quackery, snake-oil and pseudoscientific nonsense like homeopathy to extract money from vulnerable and/or credulous people. Her ‘advice’ is dangerous. If this is the kind of thing you want to do, you’re on the wrong list.
If, however, you’re great at what you do and you want to share that knowledge and help people – make sure you establish that authority! Claim your rightful spot as an expert.
So, have you written your book yet? If not, why not? It’s actually very simple, why not have a read of mine to see how it’s done?
Vicky Fraser is a copywriter, author, and entrepreneur. She really did run away with the circus… but when she’s not swinging from a trapeze, she’s showing other copywriters and small business owners how to work with better clients, make more money, and stop missing bathtimes, first words, and dinners with angry partners. In fact, she wrote the book on it. Get your copy here.