Chapter 6: Authority - Directed Deference

Influence: Science and Practice by Robert B. Cialdini


In his chapter on authority and directed deference Robert Cialdini discusses how human beings have a natural tendency to obey without question when authority factors are present. He begins this chapter with a description of a fictional study on how punishment affects learning and memory. This experiment is described in graphic detail to demonstrate the power of authority pressure. In actuality, psychologist Stanley Milgram conducted multiple experiments that mirrored the fictional study to determine the following: “When it is their job, how much suffering will ordinary people be willing to inflict on an entirely innocent other person” (Cialdini, 2009, p. 176).


Milgram’s study produced alarming results in that the majority of the subjects involved followed through on their duties in the way they were directed even though potential harm to the victim was evident. What could make ordinary people do such things? Milgram concluded that it has to do with a “deep-seated sense of duty to authority” (p. 178). The phenomenon of an adult’s ability to respond unquestioningly to the commands of authority, real or inferred, provides the basis for Cialdini’s chapter on authority in his book about the nature and practice of influence.


Cialdini refers to the concept of ‘blind obedience’ and the fact that “we are trained from birth to believe that obedience to proper authority is right and disobedience is wrong” (p. 180). He uses the biblical example of Adam and Eve to demonstrate the consequences of failing to comply with the ultimate authority. A second example taken from the bible is in line with Milgram’s study. It is the story in which God, without explanation, directs Abraham to stab his young son. Abraham willingly follows through on God’s command without questioning.


Cialdini points out that obedience to authority holds a lot of power and value in a culture since there are many advantages and rewards to “conforming to the dictates of authority figures” (p. 181). Knowing this, it is easy for us to allow ourselves to participate in ‘automatic obedience’ which can also be viewed as ‘mindless obedience’. ‘Mindless obedience’ can lead to inappropriate actions because we react without thinking. Cialdini uses examples from the medical field in which medical personnel follow doctor’s orders automatically because the doctor is seen as the authority figure. As the author reports, this unquestioning compliance to authority has led to many medical errors.


The author discusses three symbols of authority to influence behaviour that can “reliably trigger our compliance in the absence of the genuine substance of authority” (p. 184). The symbols that Cialdini refers to which are based on connotation not content are titles, clothes, and trappings.


To begin with, there is a perception of authority based on individual titles as our “actions are frequently more influenced by a title than the nature of the person claiming it” (p. 184). In fact, Cialdini reports that prestigious titles are associated with a perception of greater height; those with more prestigious titles are perceived to be taller than individuals who do not hold a title of prestige.


Second, clothes are also identified as a symbol of authority that is associated with influence.  Cialdini presents to the reader the difference in influence of someone in a well tailored business suit or uniform versus someone who is dressed normally. In the bank examiner scheme that he describes he illustrates his point of how easily clothing can be used to influence, or as in the bank scheme described it can be used to manipulate. The victim was naturally responding with deference or obedience to the symbol of authority.


Third, the author describes a symbol of authority which he refers to as trappings. Trappings carry a perception of status and position and can be anything from expensive clothing and jewellery to luxury cars. Cialdini describes a study that was conducted in the San Francisco Bay area that found that “owners of prestige autos receive a special kind of deference from others” (p. 190). This conclusion was based on observations that while at a stop light motorists would honk more readily at owners of economy vehicles versus owners of luxury vehicles.    


In conclusion, it is important to be aware of techniques of authority influence and recognize how to defend ourselves against authority as a weapon of influence. The author states that we can defend ourselves by asking questions when dealing with what appears to be an authority figure’s influence. Questions such as, Is this authority truly an expert? and How truthful can we expect the expert to be? Through this type of questioning our attention is focused on authority status rather than symbols, and authority trustworthiness rather than simply authority knowledge.




Cialdini, R. B. (2009). Influence: Science and practice. Boston, MA: Pearson.