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Techniques General persuasion > Cialdini's Six Principles > Authority

Description | Example | Discussion | See also



Principle: We defer to people who seem superior.

When a person asserts something as being true, if we believe they know more than us then we are far more likely to accept what they say as true without question.

Similarly, if another person tells us we should act in a certain way then, if we believe they are in position of authority, we will obey them. Authority may be identified by such as having a formal role, confident voice tone, symbolic dress or even body language.


A person dresses to look like a university professor and speaks using technical-sounding terms. He is able to bluff his way into a conference.

A professional 'expert' invited to speak on a TV show speaks assertively and with conviction, quickly criticizing any alternative views.


We are brought up to obey authorities, initially parents and later teachers, police, ministers, managers and so on. Such authorities have the power of command, telling us what to do. A key reason we do this is because we believe there will be negative consequences if we disobey.

We also learn to trust experts who we are believe are authorities in their subjects. We may not obey experts, but we do accept their assertions of truth (within their subject area).

This gives two types of authority: command authority (obey me) and expert authority (believe me).

We accept people as authorities when:

  • They are in a role that we believe are expert or who we must obey
  • They wear clothes that reflect our assumptions about the role, such as uniforms, suits, overalls, etc.
  • They speak assertively, acting as if they already have authority.
  • Other people tell us that they are authorities.
  • When we search for evidence about them, we find confirming information.

A critical element of authority is that it only persuades if the target person accepts the role of the authority person. If I challenge or dismiss an authority, then they have to cope with my rejection. In command authority, the person with the authority typically is able to punish those who do not obey.

Handling criticism is more difficult in expert authority, where the expert may attempt to belittle critics or otherwise use methods of social coercion. More persuasively, they may use reason, cite research and otherwise offer evidence of their expert ability and the truth of what they are asserting.

Sometimes people seek to hide their authority so they can have 'normal' conversations. For example a professor does not mention qualifications or a pop star wears a disguise when they go out.

We all have a need for a sense of control. Ceding to an authority means giving them control, which can make people reluctant to accept the authority. On the other hand, when we let an authority have control we absolve ourselves from responsibility. This can make us ambivalent of authorities, both wanting to rebel and also happy to accept them.

See also

Assertiveness, Using Body Language, Power, Control


Cialdini, R. (1984). Influence: The Psychology of Persuasion, New York: Quill


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