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The power of authority

From "The Secret Lives of Big Pharma's 'Thought Leaders' ":

In the early 1970s, a group of medical researchers decided to study an unusual question. How would a medical audience respond to a lecture that was completely devoid of content, yet delivered with authority by a convincing phony? To find out, the authors hired a distinguished-looking actor and gave him the name Dr. Myron L. Fox. They fabricated an impressive CV for Dr. Fox and billed him as an expert in mathematics and human behavior. Finally, they provided him with a fake lecture composed largely of impressive-sounding gibberish, and had him deliver the lecture wearing a white coat to three medical audiences under the title "Mathematical Game Theory as Applied to Physician Education." At the end of the lecture, the audience members filled out a questionnaire.

The responses were overwhelmingly positive. The audience members described Dr. Fox as "extremely articulate" and "captivating." One said he delivered "a very dramatic presentation." After one lecture, 90 percent of the audience members said they had found the lecture by Dr. Fox "stimulating." Over all, almost every member of every audience loved Dr. Fox's lecture.

By Ezra Klein  |  September 13, 2010; 1:24 PM ET
 
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Comments

They did this same type of thing as a gag. We are a healthcare research company, and many of our researchers come from journalism backgrounds. They had a staff meeting with a speaker (not a particularly unusual thing) who was billed as a "futurist." A handful of us had it figured out before he was done (I may be stereotyping, but I think journalists have a better BS detector than most people), but many found it, ehem, "stimulating." Mostly the sales staff.

Posted by: Rick00 | September 13, 2010 2:11 PM | Report abuse

I have heard dozens of such presentations over the years. Some from new age types, some from HR and consultant types, a few from mainstream religious and social work type organizations.

You do not need fancy language to make such a presentation fly. But you do need to draw the audience into a sort of shared dream.

Then, it is necessary to get the dreamers to fill out their evaluation cards right away, before the shiny sprinkles have subsided and they return to normal consciousness.

If these audiences had been evaluated the following week ( a week is usually sufficient for sparkle-dispersion) you would have had a very different result.

The wait-a-week rule is also useful with potential paramours. Ahem, or so I surmise.

Posted by: NoniMausa | September 13, 2010 2:33 PM | Report abuse

Reminds me of that tune, "A Matter Of Trust."

Posted by: tuber | September 13, 2010 3:04 PM | Report abuse

...the Dr. Fox went to Washington and wrote a health care reform bill, which passed to a level of cheers and applause not heard since the Republic named a Sith as its emperor??

Posted by: rmgregory | September 13, 2010 3:41 PM | Report abuse

Actually, this report shows how easily people fall into the trap of charisma and deceive themselves into believing something totally false.

@rmgregory: you may not like HCR, but right now I'm ecstatic about it. Because of HCR, I've been able to purchase a policy that reduces my monthly premium by over $600/mo. and I no longer have a $3K deductible. And no, I receive no state or federal help or payment assistance. That the legislation did was 1) open up the market place to smaller providers to compete on price and benefits with the behemoths; 2) allow for the formation of groups, i.e. groups of individuals like myself or groups of small businesses or even groups of families. As a result of this legislation, I expect overall to save close to $9,000 over the course of the next year. I'd say that's pretty damn good for a piece of legislation everyone's complaining and screaming about.

Posted by: valkayec | September 13, 2010 4:29 PM | Report abuse

People are always afraid to admit they didn't understand something, fearing that it might reveal some intellectual deficit on their part. So they'd rather praise an incomprehensible talk, on the off chance that it might be brilliant but above their comprehension, than to take the chance of calling bullshit.

Posted by: JJenkins2 | September 13, 2010 5:20 PM | Report abuse

meh - whenever you read these types of sociology "experiments" they seem much more impressive than they really are.

It's not that shocking to me that if a bunch of people are lied to about someone's credentials, then presented with fake data by that person, they'll believe it. What are they supposed to do, follow the guy home and verify whether he really did the experiments he claimed?

In the real world, of course, the truth would come out sooner or later. So I'm not sure what exactly this experiment proves. That by lying to someone, you can temporarily convince them of untrue things, until the truth inevitably comes out and you lose all credibility?

Posted by: CarlosXL | September 13, 2010 7:05 PM | Report abuse

I'd want more context about the audience and what exactly was in the talk. I'd believe it if it's to health care executives, people who are supervising an area that's outside their area of training. But for research scientists, they're notoriously combative- see the whole fight about resveratrol between GSK/Sirtris and Pfizer- to the point where some novel ideas are shot down by peer review even though they actually have merit. If you're talking about experimental science with people who are actually experts in the field, rather than just people who are paid to pretend to be experts, I can't see this getting through.

Posted by: _SP_ | September 13, 2010 9:18 PM | Report abuse

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