As adults, we are surprisingly susceptible to being influenced by other peoples’ confidence. This was famously demonstrated by Stanley Milgram in experiments he ran at Yale in the early 60’s.
Milgram was trying to understand why so many who committed atrocities in Nazi Germany explained their actions as simply “following orders.” In his experiment, a test subject was told that a person next door was learning some basic word association and needed to be quizzed. Every time the “learner” made a mistake, the test subject (“the teacher”) was to administer an electric shock to the learner using a switch board.
With each mistake, the level of the shock was increased, starting at 15 volts (marked as “slight shock”) to 450 volts (marked as “danger-severe shock”).
What the teacher didn’t know was that the learner was in on the experiment, was making mistakes on purpose and was not actually being shocked at all.
What the teacher experienced was that as he/she flipped a switch for a higher level of shock, the sounds the learner made went from startled to pain to screams. When the teacher resisted giving a higher level, they were pressured by an observer with prompts such as “Please continue,” “The experiment requires you to continue” and “You have no other choice but to continue.”
65% of participants continued all the way to 450 volts. [Learn more about the Milgram Experiment here.]
Having someone say something with authority can cause us to go against our better impulses and shut down our ability to figure things out for ourselves. We can see the consequences of this in national discussions around issues like climate change and vaccinations. These are areas where there is long-standing, well-established science that overwhelming supports specific positions:
Climate change is a real and escalating phenomenon that is the result of human activity.
Comprehensive, community-wide vaccinations do not cause autism and results in greater positive health outcomes for individuals and society as a whole.
But a small minority of voices have spoken with enough authority that, regardless of the underlying facts, people become persuaded to a differing perspective.
A funny example of this was a prank done on the old TV show, Candid Camera. People in elevators face the doors. It feels super weird not to. In this video, you can see that, even though it is strange not to face the front, being in an elevator with group who are facing the wrong way can get people to turn around as well.
So what does this have to do with parenting? Parents talk with authority to their children all the time. For many, this really takes shape during the preschool years when kids typically ask a million questions a day in a constant, often exhausting, barrage.
I can initially remember being excited by my daughter’s curiosity about the world. But it was surprising how quickly excitement turned to fatigue. It took every ounce of my will to give her thoughtful answers rather than just saying whatever would earn me some quiet.
Speaking authoritatively to your child can have an impact on them. But kids seem to have a better BS-meter than adults in some ways. Where many adults will find authoritative-sounding sources of information and stick with them even when proved wrong, children seem to be more discerning.
A group of Canadian researchers ran a study where they found that young preschoolers trusted people who were confident rather than hesitant in how they spoke, regardless of how past experience with that person demonstrated their trustworthiness.
But older children began to incorporate past experience into their evaluation of whether to trust someone. A hesitant speaker who has a history with the child of telling the truth is trusted more than a confident one with a history of making false statements.
One of the goals of becoming an effective parent is to maintain your child’s trust. You are better able to guide your child towards adulthood if he or she trusts what you say, that you are reliable and that you offer safety.
As the study above indicates, telling your child the truth, even (if not especially) when it is difficult, is more important than speaking with authority. My daughter has asked me many questions that I could not answer. She got to see me flounder around, trying to figure it out, often ending with, “I don’t know, let’s look it up.”
She has learned from this to trust me. She has also learned that “facts” are not always obvious or easy to come by. Finally, she is learning from my example how to find answers (rather than just asking her dad) as I seek outside resources.
Which brings us to Homer Simpson. This topic of this article points to the genius and humor in his character. Clearly, he is an idiot, which itself can be funny. But when he parents, he clearly does not think through the things he tells his children. He says the dumbest things with great authority.
The humor in this is that not only are we, the viewers, able to recognize the stupidity of what he says, but it is clear that his kids do not take him seriously either.
His authority is not enough to earn their trust in the face of his long history being wrong.
I can remember long car rides with my daughter when she was a toddler. I was trapped in a confined space with a creature whose appetite for information could not be satisfied.
“Why? Why? Why?”
My constant mantra: Don’t be Homer Simpson.