Behaviour Change

PROPAGANDA FOR CHANGE is a project created by the students of Behaviour Change (ps359) and Professor Thomas Hills @thomhills at the Psychology Department of the University of Warwick. This work was supported by funding from Warwick's Institute for Advanced Teaching and Learning.

Thursday, February 20, 2014

You are what you wear.

When I was young and misbehaved, my parents used to tell me that the police will get me.  Indeed, we are brought up to obey authoritative figures, such as our parents, teachers and people with a higher social status.  Cialdini (2007) suggests that we are more likely to comply with authority, without thinking much on the pros and cons when making decision.

However, we often come across individuals that we are unclear about his/her social status and we tend to rely on his/her apparel to determine it (Bickman, 1974).  Bickman (1974) conducted a study and found that people are more likely to comply with perceived authority (men in uniform) than men dressed as a bum.  Bushman (2006) modified Bickman’s (1974) study and has put other variables including age, altruism, how apparel affected compliance, noncompliance, and the latency to comply into investigation. 

In Bushman’s (2006) study, there are three levels of independent variables, which are the apparel of the confederate: no authority (dressed as a bum), status authority (dressed in business suit), and role authority (dressed in fireman’s uniform).  The experiment used the same confederate for all the conditions.  The experimenter is a person in need of a dime (a 10 cent coin) for parking.  The procedure of the experiment is that the confederate stops the chosen subject on the street and points at the experimenter that is standing beside the car, stating that the experimenter doesn’t have change for parking and tell the subject to give the experimenter a dime.  Afterwards, if the subjects complied, the reason of compliance would be asked.

As indicated in Table 1, the results of the study have shown that the increase in perceived authority has led to an increase in compliance:  45% of the experiment subjects comply with the no authority, 50% comply with the status authority, and 82% comply with the role authority.  By looking at the reason of compliance, the increase in perceived authority has resulted in a decrease in ‘altruism’ and increase in ‘unquestioned obedience’.  50% of the complied subjects are altruistic in the no authority condition, 16% and 10% are altruistic in the status authority condition and role authority condition respectively.  In contrast, 64% of the reasons given for compliance are classified as ‘unquestioned obedience’ in the role authority condition, while only 48% and 23% are classified as ‘unquestioned obedience’ in the status authority condition and no authority condition respectively.

Moreover, the latency between request and compliance is affected by authority.  23%-24% of the subjects comply within 30s in the no authority and status authority conditions, whereas 85% of the subjects comply within 30s in the role authority condition.  While there is no significant gender difference in compliance, the percentage of older subjects (over 30 years) complying is significantly larger than that of the younger subjects (16-30 years).
All in all, the way you dress affects others’ impression on you and how likely they will comply with you.  No wonder we can often find reports on fake police officers and naïve victims.  


Bickman, L. (1974). The social power of a uniform. Journal of Applied Social Psychology, 4, 47-61.

Bushman, B. J. (1984). Perceived symbols of authority and their influence on compliance. Journal of Applied Social Psychology, 14, 501-508.

Cialdini, R. B. (2007). Influence: The Psychology of Persuasion. New York: HarperCollins.

Wing Shan Jennifer Chan

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