Do you do as you’re told? Are you more likely to follow instructions from your doctor, manager, teacher, or a police officer? The authority principle of persuasion explains our instinctive deference to people with power or expertise.
The Authority Principle is the theory that people are hard-wired to comply with requests that come from an acknowledged and accepted source of authority. While authority was important for the development of civilization, it can also be manipulated. Learn about where the need for authority came from and how authority influences you.
The Authority Principle
We are strongly inclined to be deferential to people who we consider to be in a position of power or expertise. Examples would include teachers, members of the armed forces, police officers, doctors, and judges, to name just a few.
Authority is so powerful that humans are responsive even to the mere vestiges or symbols of authority—titles, uniforms, and insignia can exert a strong influence. Given this strong fixed-action pattern of compliance, it is no wonder that compliance professionals know how to use the appearance or suggestion of authority to force us to accede to their requests.
Origins of Authority
Like the other fixed-action instincts, the Authority Principle of persuasion makes sense in context. There are good and legitimate reasons why we’re strongly conditioned to obey authority. Leadership, hierarchy, and authority are obviously necessary ingredients in any functioning society.
Unless we want a state of complete anarchy and lawlessness, there’s always going to be somebody making decisions and giving orders. Authority of some people over others was a great advantage to early humans as they were building the first organized societies—and eventually, the first civilizations. It allowed for resource allocation, trade, military organization, economic development, and the rule of law.
Early civilizations were civilizations precisely because they had some centralized authority that was able to make decisions for the collective good and marshall the necessary resources to implement them. In the absence of authority, there is anarchy, the state of nature that English philosopher Thomas Hobbes famously described as being “nasty, brutish, and short.”
This is why we’re so strongly oriented toward obedience and deference to authority. We learn the Authority Principle in the very beginning of life when we are taught to obey and respect our parents, and the message only gets reinforced in the educational, legal, religious, military, and political systems we navigate throughout the course of our lives.
Authority and Obedience in the Old Testament
For many people in what we would call “the West,” the Bible is the touchstone text that forms the foundation of our moral values. It also happens to be shot through with the theme of deference to authority. This is another example of how the Authority Principle of persuasion has become ingrained.
In the Book of Genesis in the Old Testament, Adam and Eve’s fall from grace is the result of a failure to obey God’s command to not eat fruit from the Tree of Knowledge—the origin of the concept of original sin.
Later in the Old Testament, God commands Abraham to kill Isaac, his eldest son. Abraham is perfectly willing to go through with this until God stops him: the episode was merely a test of Abraham’s willingness to obey a higher authority. This shows another example of the authority principle of persuasion.
The Milgram Experiment: A “Shocking” Deference to Authority
Just how deep does the authority principle run? What can normal human beings be compelled to do at the behest of an authority figure? The results of the (in)famous experiment conducted by Stanley Milgram at Yale in 1961 demonstrated just how far the authority principle of persuasion can be used—and abused.
The test subjects were told that they were participating in an experiment to measure the effects of punishment on learning and memory. One set of participants (the Learners) was tasked with memorizing lists of words. The other set of participants (the Teachers) had to measure the Learners’ progress and administer electric shocks to the Learners whenever the latter made a mistake. The lab-coated researcher was always present to ensure that both the Teacher and the Learner carried out their assigned responsibilities.
Sense of Duty
Milgram was shocked at how willing his subjects were to carry on with their task as long as there was an authority figure (the stern-faced researcher in the lab coat) urging them on.
The principle of authority applied to all types of people. There was nothing particularly special about the group of people selected to be Teachers: they were chosen randomly and represented a broad cross-section of ages, occupations, and educational levels. In repeated trials, Milgram found that people of all backgrounds, and of both sexes, were equally willing to administer the shocks: it was a universal characteristic. The Authority Principle can be a strong driver of behavior.
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