Principles of Persuasion: Authority

Principles of Persuasion: Authority

In his book ‘Influence: The Psychology of Persuasion’, Robert Cialdini describes 6 principles of persuasion:

These principles can be used to nudge citizens into behaviours that are beneficial to them. This blog post will discuss the Authority principle. 

An introduction to Authority

Why does every toothpaste provider present research results from dentists in their advertisements? Why do Chief Executives make sure they dress smart? Why do the police wear their badge on their hat and their chest?

It’s because they are aware of the impact of authority. The Authority principle is the finding that we are more likely to follow those perceived as authorities or experts in their fields (Cialdini, 2007).  

Stanley Milgram famously highlights this in his ‘Shock’ experiment. Milgram manufactured a situation involving two people, one strapped to an electric shock machine and the other sitting with an instructor and an electric shock generator. Unbeknown to the participant with the electric shock generator, the participant strapped to the device was an actor. 

The instructor asked the actor a series of questions. Every time the actor got a question wrong, he would instruct the other participant (administrator) to administer a shock to the actor, starting from 15 volts and going up to 450 volts, which is considered extremely dangerous. The administrator could hear the actor’s screams and cries for help throughout the experiment. 

Milgram found that 65% of participants administered the full 450 volts to the actor, even after the actor feigned passing out, and all participants went up to 300 volts. 

This experiment highlights the human tendency to follow orders made by authority figures, even when they are immoral. (Milgram, 1963).        

How has it been used?

One method organisations and people use to benefit from the Authority principle is wearing uniforms. Chief Executives wear suits, police officers wear uniforms, fast food employees wear corporate attire, all to display authority and expertise. This has a significant effect. 

Leonard Bickman, a psychologist, approached pedestrians in a street in Brooklyn, pointing toward a fellow citizen standing next to a parking meter and saying, ‘This fellow is over-parked at the meter but doesn’t have any change. Give him a dime!’. Bickman found that when he was dressed as a guard, 89% of pedestrians obliged. However, when dressed as a civilian, this number dropped to 33% (Bickman, 1974). 

How can it be used digitally?

With webpages now a window into organisations, many use techniques to benefit from the Authority principle online. For instance, leading UK law firm Hugh James host an ‘About Us’ page that features these techniques. 

At the top of the page there is an image of a professional looking office space, emphasising accomplishment. Midway down the page, they promote that they are a top 100 UK Law firm and that they have many clients and staff members, underlining their status as leaders in their field. Finally, there is a Solicitors Regulation Authority emblem in the footer, confirming that they are experts at practising law (Hugh James, 2022).

Users will likely feel safe and confident contacting Hugh James after seeing these features on their website.  

What to be careful of

Expert bias is one thing to be wary of. Expert bias is when people treat the opinion of experts and specialists as incontrovertible and trustworthy and to use it as the basis for making their own decisions and judgements (Zaleśkiewicz, 2017).  

If we are positioning ourselves as experts and authority figures to influence behaviour, we need to be conscious of the effect our opinion can have. People will follow what we say, so we need to make sure that we promote what we know to be true but, more importantly, highlight what we are not certain of ourselves. 

How can this help Welsh local authorities?

Local authorities can highlight their expertise to citizens to improve trust. Local authorities have a range of responsibilities and provide many, many services to meet these responsibilities. By highlighting the expertise held within all of these local authority teams, citizens will trust that they are in safe hands. 

How do you think Authority can help citizens and local authorities? Let us know in the comments. 

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