The moment comes, your first opportunity to show your smarts around behaviour change, but like a deer in the headlights, heart pumping, dry mouth, you scramble to remember that article you read about optimism bias…just like that, your moment has passed.

Vowing never to let anyone suffer the same fate as I did, I’ve put together a series of consumer hacks aimed at giving you a quick boost of 10 iQ points in any client meeting.

Consumer Hack No. 4: Authority – Our behaviour is susceptible to drastic change when influenced by an authoritative figure.


Example – After the devastation of WWII, many people questioned the actions of soldiers that acted under the now commonly known excuse “I was only following orders”.

An American researcher, Stanley Milgram, set out to determine what lengths common Americans would go to when instructed by an authoritative figure (eg. Doctor, Teacher, Parent) to act in a way that conflicted with their morals.

Milgram gathered members of the general public to take part in an experiment that required them to administer electric shocks of increasing severity to another innocent American based on every wrong answer the respondent gave to a specified test. What the subject didn’t know was that the respondent, was in fact, part of the experiment and was not being zapped at all.

The experiment consisted of the following people:

  • Teacher (Test subject) – member of the American public instructed to administer the “electric shock” to the ‘learner’
  • Learner (Victim) – actor instructed to give wrong answers, whilst pretending to react to the gradually increasing “electric shocks”
  • Doctor (Authoritative figure) – actor instructed to passively push the test subject to continue asking the questions, regardless of their moral objections

The original footage is confronting, but definitely worth a watch:

Result – Milgram was stunned to find that 65% of participants were willing to subject another human to what they believed to be a near-fatal electric shock simply because they were ordered to do so by an authoritative figure (a doctor in a lab coat)…not what you would expect, right?

He concluded that by obeying instructions from an authoritative figure we allow ourselves to transfer part of the responsibility of our actions to them. This shift in responsibility makes it easier for people to act in morally conflicting ways without feeling the same level of guilt.

Takeaway – It’s important to understand how much we, as human beings, are susceptible to the influence of authority when making important decisions. Interestingly, the principles of authority are not exclusive to professors in a lab coat, they are also applicable to brands. As a brand you can unlock opportunities by mapping your Inbound & Outbound Authority:

  • Inbound – Authoritative figures that influence consumer’s current decision to purchase your product/service;
  • Outbound – Environments in which your brand holds authority.

Now, let’s make things a little more personal. Let’s explore the power of the elder sibling. In the words of Milgram, the elder sibling is an “authoritative figure” to their younger sibling (don’t get a big head Kellie). Because of this, the younger sibling is susceptible to mischievous behaviour when egged on by their elder sibling, like when stealing sweets from the cupboard. In the younger siblings mind, they feel guilty stealing sweets, but they subconsciously reconcile that guilt by shifting part of the responsibility to their older sibling – “muuuum, she told me to do it”.

Until next time, keep blaming your older siblings.