Friday, May 31, 2013

Influence, Chapter 6

Chapter 6: Authority

Ah, the power of authority.

A shocking experiment!
This chapter begins (of course) with an account of Milgram's famous electric shock experiment, in which one subject (the "teacher") was instructed to deliver increasingly high voltages of electric shock to another subject (the "learner") for each wrong answer the learner gave.  As the shocks reached intolerable levels and the learner cried out in increasing agony, the scientist pressed the teacher to continue administering the shocks ("The experiment requires that you continue.").

In fact, the learner was a confederate, just pretending to be shocked.  The real experiment was about the willingness of a subject to do what an authority figure (the scientist) told him to do.
The result was that "teachers" became increasingly uncomfortable, but instead of refusing to continue, 65% of them continued to the end.

Ah, the power of --- editorializing?

Sigh.  I am tired of the standard interpretations of this experiment. Cialdini draws the usual, strongly negative conclusion that people are wrong to be such slaves to the authority of the scientists. Rise up, timid sheeples!  Don't just blindly follow orders!  You can think for yourselves!

But in a sense, this experiment couldn't be suggesting something more opposite.  Because actually it wasn't a bad idea to trust these scientists!  They weren't monsters after all, shockingly (!), even though they really, really seemed to be.

Authorities are authorities for a reason
Why do we listen to scientists? Maybe because we have accumulated a large body of evidence saying they are trustworthy.  Did you ever hear of a Yale psychologist actually torturing people?  Our prior is based on the fact that they don't really do horrific experiments.  This is an appropriately strong prior that perhaps shouldn't be overridden by apparent evidence to the contrary from inside a psych experiment.

(And gosh, a psych experiment! Are things ever as they seem in a psych experiment?  Not that the subjects knew this, though.)

Why follow orders?
Maybe you think they know what's best for you. Maybe they can hurt you if you don't do what they say.  Maybe by following orders, you are absolved from some portion of responsibility for your actions.  Maybe everyone else is following orders and going with the flow might be a good idea.  These are all fine reasons.

The question is not whether we tend to follow the orders of authority figures. (We do).  The question is whether our priors are well-calibrated on which authority figures to follow what kinds of orders from.  Scientists, governments, bosses, our we give them the proper weight on average?  It's not enough to look at a few decisions ex post and declare people stupid for following orders.  (And it's definitely not enough to look at an experiment in which people weren't stupid to follow orders and declare them stupid for following orders.)

What? A Doctor?
Of course, when a trait is correlated with (justified) authority, it can potentially be mimicked by non-authority figures hoping to ride the wave.  Anyone can dress like a police officer or call themselves a doctor to gain an air of authority!

But while this might look like authority having "undue influence" to the naive social scientist, it's a bit of a masquerade.  The real man behind the curtain is Dr. Incomplete Info, also known as Doctor What the Heck's Going On? or simply Doctor What for short.  You can trust Doctor What -- after all, he's a doctor! -- to mess things up sneakily.  His specialty is sneakily taunting his victims with all the great outcomes they could achieve If Only.  Like any successful man behind the curtain, Doctor What is seldom blamed directly for his deeds.

I'm a stellar candidate for this job.  If I'm the best person for the job I should get the job. Why can't I even get an interview?  If Only I could convince my prospective employer. (Life is so unfair).
Look at these stupid buffalo being herded off a cliff.  If Only they realized the dangers of herding behavior.
Look at this dupe trusting a salesman pretending to be a doctor. If Only he realized that the appearance of authority can be deceiving.

When you know the truth, you feel strongly that the world ought to align with what you know, and any misalignment is stupid or unfair.  Because the truth is true. The truth is right.  But behavior isn't a function of the truth, it's a function of the information people happen to have.  How could you expect people to act on information they don't have?  Perhaps they couldn't possibly know the truth at the time of their decision, or perhaps it is simply too costly for them to gather the information.

Coexisting peacefully
Because economists are interested in optimal decision-making, and because decision-making depends on the available information, we are hyper-aware of information and the role it plays.  Economics has uncovered many ways to facilitate information flow, but in the process, we have also been forced to recognize that information is often too costly to be worth collecting.  This can include the cost of walking downstairs to figure out if the mailman has come yet; the cost of getting your trading partner to reveal how much he really wants the microwave you're trying to sell him; the cost of sorting through all possible job applicants to find the true best fit for the job...

In an imperfect world, such impossibility results bring peace of mind.  They tell us that even if we do the very best we can, we have to live with imperfection, so we may as well accept it as a fact of life.  Faced with a suboptimal outcome, people's first instinct is to complain, to search for a culprit, someone to blame.  But things can suck without anyone to blame.

Well, in this instance you can blame Doctor What.  But even better would just be to accept the reality of the situation.

Economists have coexisted peacefully throughout time with the Doctor in all his various incarnations.  They see through his curtain, which is to say they know when he's up to no good...but there are no answers there, only unanswered questions...

The bottom line
Cialdini says we should be wary of fakers and mistrustful of authority.  And while it's true that paying extra attention may help us to distinguish some fakers, that's no magic bullet.  Effort is costly, and for any level of effort we put in, there will still be some fakers who manage to make themselves indistinguishable from genuine authorities.  It is equally intelligent to trust every person who appears to be an equally convincing doctor, regardless of the actual truth.

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