It’s interesting how we’re conditioned to behave according to certain authority signals. A uniform, a whistle, a type of hat, whatever it might be, we interpret them as cues that someone is in charge, or supposed to be, or wants us to think they are.

We’ve all seen the tour guides wielding their umbrellas and clip boards like ceremonial symbols of governmental power. “Blue group! Blue group! I’ve got a clip board and I’m not afraid to use it!”

In the 1980’s and 90’s, before there was a computer on every desk, we lived in a world of paper. A sure-fire way to look busy and shirk work was to wander from office to office carrying a sheaf of papers. “Yes, that’s right, terribly important, just personally delivering this vital piece of information.”

It’s not just authority uniforms that we have an acquired, automatic response to. You can make the same argument for all kinds of uniforms. People of a criminal or ne’erdowell disposition rely on these signals to gain access to our house without raising suspicions – sometimes when we are home, but usually when we’re not – and take our belongings. Sometimes artists who like to remain aloof use them as well to preserve their anonymity.

I remember a few years ago my wife, who at the time was a stay-at-home Mum in a rather nice 18th century rented cottage in southern England, spotted a man approach our dwelling during the day in a van, get out in running gear, come over to our house and pretend to do some stretches for jogging while all the time peering into our windows and ‘casing the joint’, before walking ten yards back to his car to drive off again. You’d never think someone purportedly out for a jog was engaged in a job of another kind.

Uniforms and other signals lead us to think in a certain way.  They can also mis-lead us, to our cost.

 

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