The perception of authority and what your clothes really say about you

Written by Paul on November 19th, 2008

Let’s be honest, waiting around until you are good enough to be an authority figure is not the way to build your professional empire. Constantly improving yourself and doing something is a much better way to get ahead — though, there is something to be said about dressing the part too.

The Milgram Experiment

The Milgram experiment was a series of social psychology experiments which measured the willingness of study participants to obey an authority figure who instructed them to perform acts that conflicted with their personal conscience. In Milgram’s own words:

I set up a simple experiment at Yale University to test how much pain an ordinary citizen would inflict on another person simply because he was ordered to by an experimental scientist. Stark authority was pitted against the subjects’ [participants'] strongest moral imperatives against hurting others, and, with the subjects’ [participants'] ears ringing with the screams of the victims, authority won more often than not. The extreme willingness of adults to go to almost any lengths on the command of an authority constitutes the chief finding of the study and the fact most urgently demanding explanation.

The results: 65% of participants administered the final 450-volt shock to another person — simply because an authority figure told them to do it.

Milgram says it’s our deep-seated sense of duty to authority. We’re trained from childhood to respect authority, and the obedience that comes with it stays with us throughout our lives, even when we feel something may not be quite right.

Dress the part

Our deference to authority is driven mostly by perception. That’s why a lab coat, police officer’s uniform or $4,000 bespoke suit alone can facilitate influence over or control of others. We even act differently toward other people depending on our perception of their authority level, sometimes even adopting their mannerisms and speech patterns.

Everything else being equal, context matters more than actual content. In other words, if a person is perceived as an authority figure, what they say is taken at face value and accepted as fact more readily. It helps someone bypass otherwise common objections. Building authority is therefore crucial to building a business, especially if you are selling services or knowledge products.

Next time you’re heading into an important meeting or simply trying to make new friends, take a minute to look in the mirror — what are your clothes actually saying about you?

4 Responses to “The perception of authority and what your clothes really say about you”

  • I’ve always subscribed to the theory that the impression that dress conveys is situational. When you have credibility, dressing casually indicates a sense of ease and confidence. In those situations, wearing a suit actually makes you look weak.

    — 11/19/08 at 8:24 am

  • For some of my previous interviews I tend to dress up a little higher up than the position. I have a young face and dressing a little bit more conservatively helps my presentation.

    — 11/29/08 at 9:27 pm

  • Now that I think about it, it makes perfect sense. I never realized that a simple uniform can give you so much (illegal) authority. Just because you are an important figure, people are willing to do something for you, even if it’s wrong? I don’t agree with that, but the study seems pretty feasible. I think that normal clothes have a lower voice than uniforms.

    — 12/09/08 at 3:56 pm

  • Great Article

    — 12/17/08 at 12:54 pm

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