Principle #6: Authority

28.03.2017 |

Episode #5 of the course Persuasion science masterclass: Part II by Andy Luttrell


I’ll be honest—this one is pretty straightforward. Think for a moment what would happen if a police officer came up to you and told you to do something or asked you to do something. Chances are, you’d be pretty compliant. You would do as they requested because they are in a position of authority. We learn from a very young age that you are supposed to do what an authority figure tells you to. Social hierarchy and power is something very basic to the human experience.

The “Social Rule”: We obey authority figures.

The Principle of Influence: You can gain greater compliance by highlighting your authority.

If there’s anything about you or your message that you could use to leverage authority, you’d be wise to highlight it. This was made abundantly clear in a famous series of studies in social psychology conducted by Stanley Milgram. What these studies showed was that people will go along with what they are told—even if that means harming another person—so long as someone in a position of authority gives the orders.

One way to play up authority as an influence strategy is to “dress the part.” According to this technique, you can maintain your authority by speaking assertively and looking like you belong. Just by putting on the dress of an authority figure, you can have greater influence.

Now of course, I’m not saying that you should pretend to be a police officer or pretend to be something you’re not, but if you already have anything that could be a case of authority, then you can emphasize that. Also, things like speaking assertively are a way to make it seem as though you have authority, regardless of how much actual power you have.

One way we can see dressing the part in action is through a classic influence study (Bickman, 1971). Realize that this study was done in the ‘70s; the experimenters would approach people on the street and simply say, “Do you see that person down the road at his car? He needs to pay the parking meter, and he doesn’t have any money. Could you please give him a dime?” That was it. Just a simple request.

Half of the time, though, when they would approach someone on the street and make this request, they would be wearing just normal, everyday clothes. But the other half of the time, when they would approach these individuals on the street and ask them to give a stranger a dime, they were dressed as a police officer.

When people were approached by someone in plain clothes, they would comply with the request about 40% of the time. But when the same request was made by someone with apparent authority, the compliance rate shot up to 92%.

Of course, the lesson is not to impersonate police officers—that’s illegal. Instead, it simply speaks to the sheer power of authority—a fact that may play a role in your own communication endeavors.

Tomorrow we’ll jump into a new principle that highlights the important role that scarcity plays in the influence process.


Recommended book

“Verbal Judo: The Gentle Art of Persuasion” by George J. Thompson, Jerry B. Jenkins


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