Authority Principle definition

The Authority Principle underlines our tendency to obey authority. From a very young age, we are “trained” to obey: our parents, teachers, adults, policemen, etc. As we grow up we already have an intrinsic classing system that shows us who we are expected to obey, people that we consider to be “superior” to us in authoritative terms, but also who we expect to obey us, those that we consider to be “inferior”. This obedience isn’t necessarily coercive (that’s to say reliant on the use of force) but is rather more often simply based on this ingrained reaction to authority figures; there is an unspoken agreement about the balance of control in our societies that is most often adhered to.

There are many elements that can give the impression of authority: expertise, experience, popularity, a uniform (doctor’s coat, police uniform…), a title (Dr., Professor, Director…), physical attributes (strength, size), success, wealth, simply an authoritative attitude, etc. Due to the amount of information available, we often use cognitive shortcuts, only relying on one or two attributes linked to authority figures in order to decide whom we should obey. For example, we only need see a police badge to follow orders from someone without really questioning what they are asking us to do, whether it really adheres to the law, whether the police badge is even real, etc.

One of the most famous experiments to demonstrate the Authority Principle was named after the American Psychologist who carried it out: the Milgram experiment. This experiment aimed to measure the extent to which people will continue to be obedient even when the orders being given go directly against morality and personal conscience. Participants were paired up, with one becoming the “teacher” and one the “student”. This draw was fixed so that the student was always an actor and the teacher the real participant of the experiment. The student had to learn different word pairings and was then attached to an electro-shock machine (fake, of course - unbeknownst to the participant) that the teacher was in control of. They asked the student questions and each time they gave a wrong answer (which they intentionally did most of the time) the teacher was told to give them a shock. They were accompanied by another actor who was dressed in a recognisably scientific outfit and was placed there as the “authority figure” who continued to encourage participants to give the shocks even when the voltage got higher and students became noticeably uncomfortable. The presence of this legitimised authority, meaning that the person in charge is assumed competent and of an authoritative nature, meant that very few of the participants questioned the ethics or morality of the orders at all, with a shocking 62.5% of participants seeing the experiment through to the end and giving their partners “shocks” of what would have been really dangerous levels. The conclusion was that humans will continue to follow orders given by a presumed figure of authority even when these orders should in reality be called in to question.

Utilising authority is therefore an effective means of persuasion and yet a further extension of this is shown through the “argument from authority”, meaning when we convince people of our point of view using such “arguments” as: “this has been proved statistically”, “the government/this or that expert has confirmed that…”, “everybody knows that…”, etc. Using such statements can be a useful persuasive tool in marketing and communications. Another widespread use of the Authority Principle in these fields is the use of a celebrity or other authority figure (industry leader or expert for example) endorsement. Well-known sports brands use well-known sports figures to immediately give their products credibility; if this famous footballer say these football boots are the best then people will be inclined to believe them. Another way of making the most of this is by putting “expert” testimonies or reviews on your website; the knowledge that people of authority from your field endorse your products will make consumers much more likely to want them too.

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