Consensus or Authority? Fad or Fact Might be the Difference

Ever since Abigail was little we’ve had a tradition of going to Panera Bread for some good food, drink and father-daughter talk. We usually each get sesame seed bagels with butter but she likes her bagel warmed up in the microwave whereas I prefer mine toasted. She’s my kid but we are a little different.

A few weeks ago we stopped by Panera for lunch before Abigail headed to watch her high school play. As we ate and talked she was telling me about a book she was reading for her youth group, The 7 Habits of Highly Effective Teenagers. I was interested to hear what she had to say because The 7 Habits of Highly Effective People is one the most impacting books I’ve ever read. She informed me that adults who write books for teens just don’t get it. I asked why and she went on to say, “If kids did all the things adults told us to do we wouldn’t be kids, we’d just be little adults.” You can imagine the interesting conversation ensued.

Our time together got me thinking about motivating people to change their behavior, and in particular I was thinking about teens. I suspect every person reading this is familiar with the phrase “peer pressure.” It’s just a different term for what is known more commonly as consensus or social proof in psychology. Whatever you call it here’s what it describes; to varying degrees we all look to others to find our cues on how to behave. In other words, we are influence by the power of the crowd. And when people are unsure of what to do consensus becomes an even more powerful tool to persuade others with.

Another principle of influence that comes into play when there’s uncertainty is the principle of authority. When we’re not sure what to do quite often we look for the advice of those who are more knowledgeable than we are. More often than not following the lead of experts helps our decision making.

What Abigail seemed to be saying in a roundabout way was teens don’t necessarily look to adults – authorities – on how to live and act. She’s right, teens take most of their cues from each other and that’s why when we were young mom or dad would ask us, “If everyone else was [fill in the blank] would you?” And we all knew the right answer, “No mom, I wouldn’t [fill in the blank] just because everyone else is.”

Quite often people ask me, “If consensus and authority both apply when there’s uncertainty is one better than the other when it comes to persuasion?” My answer is a firm, “Yes, but it depends.”

In general, if there are facts and stats from experts that apply to the situation you’re facing then bringing authority to bear is probably the right call because it’s hard to argue with empirical data. However, if the situation is more a question of taste or preference then you’d do well to look for ways to bring consensus into the conversation because people feel more comfortable doing what others are doing.

For example, when it comes to investing your money you’re probably better off asking what financial advisors have to say rather than what the neighbors are doing. Consensus will still be a motivator but not nearly as strong for most people as is the word of an authority.

Another example might be fashion. When it comes to fads what everyone else is doing or wearing will be more persuasive for most people as opposed to talking about what a particular fashion designer or magazine has to say. Again, it’s not that those authorities won’t impact decision making. They certainly could but they’re not likely to be as motivating as consensus.

Back to Abigail and books for teens; what should authors do? Why not collaborate with teens to produce something for teens? The authority could give some guidance but by and large the material would come from peers. As adults we were all teens and our desire is good – we want to help teens avoid some of the mistakes we made. The problem is kids think we don’t understand them because, “You were a teenager like a million years ago!”

Here’s my advice – don’t fight the wave, look for ways to ride it safely to shore. That comes with understanding who you’re trying to persuade and which principles will be most effective. Start looking for ways to do that and it’s a good bet you’ll enjoy more success than you currently do.

Brian, CMCT
influencepeople
Helping You Learn to Hear “Yes”.

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Brian Ahearn, CMCT®
Brian Ahearn, CMCT®
Chief Influence Officer at Influence People, LLC
Brian Ahearn is the Chief Influence Officer at Influence People, LLC. A dynamic keynote speaker, trainer, coach, and consultant, he specializes in applying the science of influence and persuasion in business and personal situations. He is one of only 20 individuals in the world who currently holds the Cialdini Method Certified Trainer® (CMCT®) designation. This specialization in the psychology of persuasion was earned directly from Robert B. Cialdini, Ph.D. – the most cited living social psychologist in the world when it comes to the science of ethical persuasion. Brian’s passion is helping people achieve greater professional success and enjoy more personal happiness. He does this by teaching people how to ethically move others to action through the science of persuasion.
4 replies
  1. Paul Hebert
    Paul Hebert says:

    Great post Brian. One of things we may forget about is that learning is really a process of failing repeatedly – trying something new and seeing the results, adjusting and failing again. Teenage years are for learning. It is no surprise they would seek to experiment with new ideas and ways of accomplishing something – that's called learning. Teenagers are really learning to learn – and authority is doing what has been done – not experimenting.

    I also think, as you mention, that they typically look to their peer groups for direction because they are learning too – more "like" me – than an authority. Through the learning process we are really learning when authority is a better guide than concensus.

    Great post – Keep it coming!

    Reply
  2. Brian
    Brian says:

    You're right Paul, a big part of the learning process is from one another. One other learning point is usually when kids look back and realize mom and dad were smarter than they realize and they probably should have listened a little more. ; )

    Reply
  3. Cheri Allbritton
    Cheri Allbritton says:

    I love this post! And not that I even care about the subject, although I think the Covey family is an awesome literary family that manages to find the perfect voice and target market for each volume penned for whatever reason. No Brian, I love this post because it is such an awesome illustration of a positive family unit. And as much as both you and your wife and Abigail recognize how special your relationships are, you really won't until she is grown and on her own. Believe it! I am thankful for the privilege of being the daughter of my parents every single day. And now wife to my husband. You are all blessed in a very big way!

    Reply
  4. Brian
    Brian says:

    Cheri,
    I'm glad you enjoyed the post so much and that you took time to let me know. Your comment about your relationship with your dad is encouaging too. Abigail is certainly the apple of my eye.

    Reply

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