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By Trevor Campbell on 23/02/17 | How we behave


Ever wondered why dentists are often used to recommend toothpaste? Or why doctors in the US advertise a wide range of pills and potions? It’s because of the powerful effect of authority – and it’s one that almost any business can use.

The concept of authority in behaviour stems from a form of social learning (or social proof) – where we look to others to see how we should behave.

It explains the rise of ‘influencers’ and is related to what psychologists call the ‘halo effect’ – where our overall impression of a person or a company influences our thoughts about their character. So, by association, we may also rate a company or product highly if we value or like the person linked to them.

This is especially the case when we are unsure about a situation or need to take a mental shortcut. We look to those who are perceived authority figures – or experts in their field – for guidance. And we all trust experts, right?

While the capital of so-called experts has taken a battering (pollsters didn’t predict Brexit or Trump, economists were foxed by the 2008 financial crisis), there are many cases where the perceived wisdom of experts can help you.

 - If you are sending out a financial report, make sure it comes from the CIO or a fund manager rather than someone in marketing or sales. (Even a quote from a Buffett, O’Neill or Woodford figure may raise your credibility by association.)

 - If you have a car dealership ask a well-known rally driver (assuming that an F1 driver might cost mega-bucks) or motoring journalist to head up a campaign, write a blog for you or even pose for pictures in your forecourt.

 - If you work for a tech firm, a well-known engineer, inventor or tech company owner who praises what you offer boosts the integrity of your product.

 - If you sell organic foods, you could leverage the kudos of a well-known chef or food blogger.

 - If you’re a first-time science author a blurb from Hawking or Dawkins works wonders (personally, I discovered Don DeLillo after a nod from Martin Amis).

  The situations where you could benefit from an authority nudge are almost endless. Whatever field you are in, try and weave in an endorsement from someone who is either an expert in that field or who benefits from using what you offer.

Mo Farah may not know about all the ins and outs of mycoprotein (used in Quorn products) – but he is certainly an authority when it comes to being fit and healthy.

Even the illusion of authority works. US actor Robert Young (who played a doctor called Marcus Welby) advocated the health benefits of a brand of caffeine-free coffee. The ads ran for years even though readers clearly knew he wasn’t a real doctor.

The fake approach is not recommended. If you're using an authority figure, make sure they have the badge to go with the walk.

                         "Authority without wisdom is like a heavy ax without an edge." - Anne Bradstreet