Episode 5: The Persuasive Power of People in Authority


Our brains simply can’t make every single decision. That’s why it listens to authorities — or perceived authorities — to make the decision process much easier.

In this episode of Catalytic Results, Founder Hamid Ghanadan explores why people believe things when it comes from a person of authority — whether that’s a doctor or a teacher, or even someone who’s perceived to be of authority.

B2B marketers can leverage the Authority heuristic, and influence their audience to make decisions.

This is the fifth episode in a multi-part series on how B2B organizations can leverage human behavior and heuristics to inspire change among your audience.

If I told you to do something, would you do it? 

What if I were wearing a lab coat? Or a uniform? Would that make you more likely to follow my advice or direction?

You might not think so. But it’s likely.

Nearly every second of our lives is filled with making decisions, from simple choices like what to have for dinner, to more significant ones like who to vote for. 

Our brains simply don’t have the bandwidth to logically evaluate every single decision. That’s why we read newspapers for endorsements, or listen to our doctor’s advice when it comes to our cholesterol intake. Our brain looks for authoritative voices to tell us what to do. 

Leveraging this can create… Catalytic Results!

The brain uses heuristics—or shortcuts—to make decisions. And one shortcut is our brain's’ desire is to watch for signals of authority to shape our decisions. It’s pretty safe to assume that people in a position of  authority—say our teachers or doctors or law enforcement officers, are people that we listen to. 

But, that’s not the only place where our brain seeks authority. Research shows that our brains will react to a signal of authority, no matter where or who it comes from.  And these signals can even be subtle. 

One of my favorite examples is from a real estate company who made a slight change to the script that their receptionist used for incoming call. After changing the script to mention the credentials of the real estate agent before transferring the call, potential customers were about 20 percent more likely to make an appointment, and 15 percent more likely to work with that agent. All because a receptionist signaled the agent as a person of authority!

Even though this signal of authority came from within the agency, and no independent, authoritative figure was involved, the brain picked up on this signal of authority and followed, making real business impact.

In industries like healthcare or life science, organizations often seek key opinion leaders or independent authoritative figures to endorse their products or represent their brand. While this is by all means a noble endeavor, many scientists and clinicians don’t want to dilute their credibility by endorsing a company or product.  But your own internal resources can signal authority to your audience with nearly the same level of effectiveness!

Humans are beautifully complex. And our actions are governed by certain patterns. Understand these patterns, you can inspire people to action and create Catalytic Results.


Business Examples + Studies

“Altruistic ethical leaders and role models can catalyse positive change in organisations, an example of the beneficial effects that authority bias and the consequent herd effect can have.”

Have you heard about the doctor who ordered prescription ear drops for a patient and wrote “place in R ear,” but the nurse red the note incorrectly, as “place in rear”? This is a prime example of when an authority figure tells us something, all of our common senses go out the window.

Celebrity endorsements work so well because celebrities are seen as an authority. 

Have you heard of the Milgram Experiment? It was an experiment on obedience and authority in the 1950s that tested people’s willingness to listen to someone who they assumed was an authority. Participants were instructed to assist in administering electric shocks to a subject. The experiment resulted in a finding that most people obeyed the authority, even if it was against their moral conscience.

People want to work with experts. If you train yourself and educate your audience, they’ll consider you an authority and trust what you say.