Thursday, April 16, 2009

Situational Authority

Earlier today, as I was in a conference room hearing a talk on a math software package, a lady wearing a reflective orange safety vest, like the ones worn by highway workers or emergency crews, came in and told us to evacuate the building. She said that there had been a leak on the dock. Everyone obeyed her with a minimum of fuss.

As I was leaving the building, I saw someone I recognized. It was a department secretary, also wearing a safety vest. I then realized what the protocol was. All of the secretaries had been issued these orange vests. When the evacuation order was given, they were all to put on a vest and tell everyone to clear out.

From one point of view, it might seem silly to have the secretaries put on those vests. Those vests are designed to make people visible so drivers can see them. But there was no danger of anyone running into the secretaries as they went around the building telling people to clear out.

But if you know anything about psychology, you know that the vests probably made the evacuation go a lot faster. People in our society have an instinct to obey anyone in a uniform. People also make decisions subconsciously, based on visual cues. The vest reminded us of emergency workers, so it both served as a uniform of authority and gave the subconscious impression that there was a serious situation. I can guarantee you than a secretary wearing a reflective safety vest will command much more obedience than one without such a vest. People will be less likely to question her and quicker to obey her. The vest gives her authority, in much the same way that a police uniform would.

The evacuation turned out to be a drill. We got the following email:

University public safety officials report that S--- Hall was evacuated this morning (April 16) in an evaluation exercise. The safety exercise, testing evacuation procedures and efficiency for that building only, began at 9:35 a.m. and ended at 9:45 a.m.

"We evaluated the plan for evacuating this four-story building, which includes classrooms, offices and a few labs, with a 'mock' chemical spill," said University Police Chief J--- L---.

"The exercise went well, thanks to the good work of the campus public safety employees and building security coordinator and the cooperation of the building's occupants."

It was the first time that I had seen these vests. I do not doubt that they were a factor in the test going well. This was a good example in the power of situational cues in general and uniforms in particular.

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