De-Bias Yourself: Authority Bias and Why We Love a Good Clipboard
“People will tell you anything if you have a clipboard” — J, Alderperson, New Jersey
J is an elected local official in New Jersey (and a friend of mine). As part of their campaign, volunteers went door to door in this small town to canvas voters. After countless hours spent walking and talking, they noticed a distinctive pattern: if a voter was approached by a canvasser with a clipboard, they were more likely to speak candidly and share personal details.
Laughing, they told me about this observation on the phone the other day, and it immediately sparked a connection that will be familiar to anyone who’s taken Psych 101 — the Milgram Experiments.
In 1961 at Yale University, researcher Stanley Milgram crafted and then implemented a series of experiments to better understand people’s obedience to authority figures. Milgram — who was deeply affected by the events of the Holocaust — sought to decode how seemingly nice and normal people could be persuaded to carry out acts of horror and to harm others.
Though not considered ethical today, the experiment had a relatively simple and brilliant design. The subject was led into a room and told to ask another person (hidden from view behind a wall) a question. If the answerer got the question wrong, the subject was asked to inflict an electric shock on them using a lever. The only other person in the room with the subject was the experimenter, who was dressed in a lab coat with a clipboard.
The “target” was a hidden confederate of Milgram’s. As the target got answers wrong, the subject was encouraged to administer the electric shock in increasing amounts. The target would then feign pain (they were not actually receiving any shock) by screaming or crying. If the subject expressed hesitation at inflicting pain on the target, the experimenter in the lab coat would simply say one of four prompts, including benign-sounding phrases like “the experiment requires that you continue.” They were thus encouraged to administer an amount of electric shock that the target eventually pretended had knocked them unconscious.
In the first experiment, surprising Milgram himself, 65% of participants administered the top level of shock — 450 volts — and 100%…