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Authority principle


Principles > Authority principle

Principle | Hierarchies of control | Indicators of authority | Reactance | So what



If a policeman came up to you in the street and told you to move out of the street as there was a parade starting, would you go? What if the policeman said you fitted the description of someone who was wanted for burglary, and that you should go with them to clear this up, would you go?

In fact most people would obey unquestioningly, which is a fact well known by confidence tricksters. We see the uniform and never dream to question the possibility that the policeman may not, in fact, be a policeman. 

The double bind of authority is that not only are we compelled to obey it, but we are not even permitted to challenge it. This makes it a very powerful persuasion principle.

Hierarchies of control

Basic conditioning

From a very young age, we are trained to obey. First our parents (and by default all adults), then teachers, policemen, managers and so on. Eventually it defaults to anyone who seems to be our superior.

We thus divide the world into those who are superior to us (and who are thus to be obeyed) and those who are inferior (and who should obey us). We then make the critical error of equating superiority with authority. 

Control and trust

The basic pact between parents and children, policemen and citizens, managers and employees is one of trust and control. We all have a need for a sense of control, which can be gained in two ways: We can either control things ourselves or we can trust someone else to provide the control for us. One implicit message of authority is thus 'Don't worry--everything is under control'.

The reciprocal agreement

There is a tacit reciprocal agreement in situations of ceded authority that happens  in two ways. In a coercive sense, a suppressed threat to use force leads us to give control. In the nurturing sense, we promise the rewards of love. Either way, obedience is gained through a promise of future action.

Indicators of authority

How do we know when someone else is in a position of authority? Other than known people like parents and managers, here are some deliberate cues set up to remind us of who is in charge.


Uniforms are very overt symbols of authority. They show membership of and allegiance to specific groups. Mostly, we associate uniforms with police and military forces. We also stretch the authority-acceptance to water inspectors, security guards, postmen and more.

What the uniform covertly says is, 'I belong to a big and well-organized group. If you don't do as I say, I'll get all my other friends to come and beat you up!'.


We assume that if someone is wealthy, then they are successful, and if they are more successful than us, then they must somehow be superior to us. We hurry to help and obey those who seem richer than us, perhaps also in the hope that some of their wealth will fall our way.


Symbols of power are used to attract people (join my gang and I'll protect you) or bully people (join my gang or I'll hurt you). Symbols can include weapons, wealth and the trappings of a recognized position.

Leaders and senior members of organizations all use symbols to remind other people of their positional power, from stripes on a sergeant's arm to the size of an executive office.

Physical attributes

A taller, stronger person could hurt us, and our  evolutionary programming tells us to generally play safe. We will thus tend to yield to such people, even though our social rules protect us from physical harm in most situations.

It is a fact that more top jobs in companies are taken by taller people. Taller men and taller women are seen by most of us as being more authoritative. There is also a reciprocal effect: we will perceive people in authority to be taller than they really are. Thus we talk about someone who is 'Walking tall'.


If you act like you're in charge, many people will not challenge you. You will be protected by the double bind whereby they feel unable to challenge you, just in case you are in charge.

Types of authority

There are three types of authority that are typically used.


Command authority is that which comes from a formal position such as teacher or manager. In formal positions, people are compelled to obey those in authority, because if they do not, then punishment or other sanctions may be implemented.

Assumed command

Not all situations of authority are formal and people may act as if they have formal authority, taking an attitude (as above) that they will be obeyed. It is surprising how often you can command even complete strangers and they will obey, especially if you are using other indicators of authority.


Another type of authority is being expert, knowing more about something than others. In such situations you may not command people to do things, but you can be expert in areas of knowledge and hence be able to assert what is true or not in your domain.

Assumed expert

As with command authority, you can play the assumed expert and again, attitude will fool many people.


Being told to do something by someone in authority strips a person of control. This creates a reaction that seeks to gain back control, which can create a stubborn fight-back against authority. Teenagers famously do this in their struggle towards independence. Others will do it also, particularly if they consider the use of authority to be unfair.

This reaction can also have a longer-term effect, particularly if the person feels unable to assert themselves in the short term, with the aggrieved person perhaps taking revenge in subtle (and even self-destructive) ways.

So what?

Borrow the symbols of authority that already exist. Dress smartly. Drive an executive car. Talk like you are in charge.

You can also leverage vested authority, for example pointing out how those in authority have given you their blessing. 

The reverse of this is to gain time by pointing out that you do not have authority to decide now and need to consult your superiors or other the members of your team.

A double reverse  is to build up the sense of authority of the other person so they have no excuse not to decide here and now.


Assumption principle, Power, Trust, Status, Conformance Principle

Theories about conforming


Cialdini (1994) 


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