Problem summary

We have a strong tendency to comply with authority figures


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When determining who is an authority, we have surprisingly low standards and respond instinctively. A blue uniform represents a policeman who should be obeyed, a white lab coat and stethoscope represents a doctor who’s advice we should consider, and a man in a business suit must represent a respected business man who’s opinions we should listen to.

Cialdini found three significant symbols of authority that will reliably trigger our compliance in the absence of the genuine substance of authority: titles, clothes, and trappings (jewelry, cars, etc.)1.

Communicate authority

Communicate a sense of authority to your users by displaying appropriate credentials. List certifications, awards, or prominent customer testimonials. Associate yourself with authority figures by connecting their well-known face with your product.

Choose an authority figure depending on your business, who you want to influence, and how you want to influence them. Here are a few of examples:

  • Use prominent athletes if you want to sell the products they use.
  • Use doctors and nurses on health related websites.
  • Use famous chefs if you want to sell food.

Study who represent authority in your field and in what way your users will comply with their message.

You however don’t have to associate yourself with authority figures to communicate authority. Act like one yourself! Speak with confidence, lead discussions, blog, post videos, or find another way of establishing yourself or your company as an authority figure.


People, who identify with authority figures, trust their taste and often believe that it fits their own – or at least they wish it did. If you have experts on your team, or if the people you work with are in some way authorities, then be sure to show them off to lend credibility to the product you sell.

We have a sense of duty to authority that makes us unable to defy their wishes. Authority help define the role we take upon ourselves and the roles we put on others. If an authority figure is seen as a teacher, we put on the learner or student role. If a policeman approaches us we take on the role as a suspect or informer.

We rarely agonize over the pros and cons that authority demands. With little or no conscious deliberation, we see information from a recognized authority as a valuable shortcut for deciding how to act in a situation. Authority positions speak of superior access to information and power, why it makes sense to comply with the wishes of properly constituted authorities.

Once a legitimate authority has given an order, subordinates stop thinking in the situation and start reacting. Often the appearance of authority is enough – we don’t always need to provide real authority. A uniform or famous face can do. We are often as vulnerable to the symbols of authority as to the substance.


1 Cialdini, R. (1993), Influence: Science and practice (3rd edn), New York: HarperCollins

User Interface Design Patterns