Monday, July 25, 2011

The power of the police uniform: An instinct to obey authority

I am still processing the horrific events that happened as part of the horrific terrorist attacks in Norway last Friday. Reading over the news reports, I can only try to fathom the terror felt by the youth on the island of Utoya as they ran, pleaded, and swam for their lives. How did this happen? How did the shooter manage to talk his way onto an island that is accessible only by boat? Fairly easily it seems, since he was dressed up like a policeman.

"We greeted him as we got off the ferry," said a student who was leaving Ut√łya just as Anders Behring Breivik, dressed as a police officer, was boarding the boat for the island. "We thought it was great how quickly the police had come to reassure us of our safety because we had heard of the bombing in Oslo."

The youth on the island gathered easily around the man in a police uniform wearing two guns. After all, people in police uniforms are seen as more competent, reliable, intelligent, helpful, honest, valuable, and possessing better judgment (Mauro, 1984; Singer & Singer, 1985). And Breivik is not alone in his manipulation of the police uniform. There are reports all over the web of fake policemen, many of whom receive instinctive obedience, including this particularly disturbing report of a boss who sexually harassed an employee at the behest of a phone call from “Officer Scott.”  Evidence from psychological research, such as Milgram’s study, shows that we have an instinct to obey authority, especially when we have little time to think through our choices, and it appears that the police uniform is a particularly potent symbol of authority.

The social power of the uniform
In order to test the power of the police uniform, Leonard Bickman had a research assistant stand in the street and asked passerbys to pick up a paper bag, give a dime to a stranger, or move away from a bus stop. The research assistant wore either civilian clothes, a milkman uniform, or a guard’s uniform. Across situations, 19% obeyed the civilian, 14% the milkman, and 38% the guard. That is, twice as many people obeyed the research assistant when he was wearing a guard’s uniform, as obeyed him when he was simply in casual clothes. Furthermore, in a second variation of the experiment, Bickman found that people continued to obey the “guard” even if he walked away after making the request, suggesting that they complied not out of coercion but because they believed in the legitimacy of his power.

Even children recognize the power of the uniform
You don’t have to be an adult to see power in the police uniform. In one study, researchers Durkin and Jefferey (2000) asked children aged 5-9 years old who could make an arrest using illustrated scenarios. Their options were (1) a policeman out of uniform, (2) a policeman in uniform, and (3) a man who is not a policeman but is wearing a uniform. Children who got it wrong did so mainly because they chose a non-policeman wearing a police uniform, suggesting that for children, power really does reside in the uniform.

So what does this mean for us? Its important that we have symbols of authority, such as the police uniform, so that we know quickly and easily who to turn to for help in a crisis. However, we must also be mindful of our tendency to obey authority and to automatically assume the power of the uniform. If something seems off to you, its okay to voice your suspicions and ask for identification.

Do you find that your behavior is guided by the "uniforms" that other people are wearing? Have you ever been in a situation where you obeyed an authority figure even if you weren't sure it was the right thing to do?

The articles:

Bickman, L. (1974). The Social Power of a Uniform1 Journal of Applied Social Psychology, 4 (1), 47-61 DOI: 10.1111/j.1559-1816.1974.tb02599.x

Durkin, K., & Jeffery, L. (2000). The salience of the uniform in young children's perception of police status Legal and Criminological Psychology, 5 (1), 47-55 DOI: 10.1348/135532500167967


  1. Thanks David for pointing that out. I had found the picture in an article about the attacks and thought it was really appropriate, but this is a good reminder to always cross-check.

  2. Great post. Really good questions. There are plenty of examples in our own United States military history where "following orders" and "chain of command" have led to unfortunate situations where subordinates were afraid to disobey orders even though they knew the actions were morally wrong. The 2004 Abu Ghraib torture and prisoner abuse scandal is just one example of how institutional environments and perceived authority can be corrupted. As far as the uniform goes, my father is a retired Los Angeles Police Officer. As I child, I was taught to always respect the badge and uniform. However, he warned me when I was a teen that if I was ever driving at night, and I was pulled over, that I should make sure I pull into a well-lit, populated place just in case it was a person pretending to be an officer or even a corrupt officer looking to get someone alone and isolated. He always told me that most in uniform were good, but to think for myself and use my best judgment because there are always people who will abuse the uniform and the badge.

  3. The military is another great example of the power of the uniform (think about all the decorations they have for their uniforms that symbolize their level of authority). I also often think about the plane crashes that could have been avoided if the co-pilot had been willing to speak up when the pilot was acting in an unsafe manner (such as when two 747s crashed into each other on Tenerife in 1977). I wonder if their uniforms enhanced the feeling of authority and hierarchy in the cockpit.

    I also think its great that your dad, a cop himself, encouraged you to think for yourself and not blindly obey. Did he have experiences with people donning the uniform for manipulative purposes?

    Thanks for your comment!

  4. Amie, You bring up a great point. In the military, you have to obey orders based entirely on rank. Anyone with uniform insignia which designates they are higher in rank can give those beneath them orders. That is one reason why I never went into the military. I just couldn't see myself prospering in that system.

    And yes, my Dad was a good cop, but he did not pretend all cops were good. He also was working back when the SFPD were operating under the assumption that the zodiac killer may be impersonating a police officer when he attacked people in cars. Scary.

  5. I think If you are looking for a high quality and durable,yet lightweight polo,this is the polo for you.I had several of these shirts on my last deployment to the sand and I can tell you that they stood up to the heat,dirt,abuse,and washings in the field.Pen slot in the left sleeve is VERY handy.

  6. This is an excellent review.I would love to read more about this topic.

  7. its really nice that the police work uniforms color change from brown to blue. back in the past you often see police in brown or cocky uniform that looks very pale. its very good that they change it to blue that signifies peace. :)

  8. The funny little uniforms/costumes are meaningless without the guns behind them. People recognize the force, or at the least the threat of it. The costumes are the mark of a predator. It is the mane of a lion, the stripes of a tiger... When people get 'pulled over' they don't say "thank god, I'm safe now!", they recognize on some instinctual level they are being targeted by predators. Their heartbeat increases, they sweat, they get a rush of endorphins; their body is preparing them for an encounter with a deadly beast. These people are being held up by bandits who threaten and/or initiate violence in order to rob you of your resources.

    The false sense of authority, legitimacy or competence that is attributed to the uniform isn't just relevant regarding en-FORCE-ment officers. Think about the idiots in lab-coats, killers in camo, liars in robes, and most importantly, savages in suits. The rank-n-file, they are little more than mercenaries in the employ of the ruling class.

    If people hadn't spent their youth trapped in government indoctrination centers they might actually question why they seemingly need to be ruled at all. I have a simple question, one everyone should have an answer for: Why do you need to be owned by the ruling classes?