Influence and Persuasion: The Rule of Authority, Liking, and Scarcity

by Dean Rieck

This is part of a series of articles on the science of influence and persuasion. It is based in large part on a book by Robert B. Cialdini, Ph.D., titled Influence: The Psychology of Persuasion.

Part 1: How to Trigger the "Yes" Response
Part 2: The Rule of Reciprocity
Part 3: The Rule of Consistency
Part 4: The Rule of Social Proof
Part 5: The Rule of Authority, Liking, and Scarcity

Decked out in a uniform, badge, and baton, a television reporter stationed himself in front of a Las Vegas bank. On the ATM, he placed a sign with large lettering that read, "OUT OF ORDER — GIVE DEPOSITS TO GUARD ON DUTY." In the center of the sign was the shape of a large, gold badge.

When bank customers approached the ATM, the "guard" smiled, looked them straight in the eyes, and asked, "Do you need to make a deposit or a withdrawal?"

No bank would ever allow a guard to conduct private transactions like this, but were people suspicious? Not a bit. Without hesitation, customer after customer handed over not only cash and checks, but also Social Security numbers, credit cards, account numbers, PIN codes — private information that in the wrong hands could leave people penniless.

In fact, out of 10 customers, only one showed any signs of hesitation. And even that customer eventually gave in.

In two hours, the reporter gained access to over $10,000 in check deposits and account balances.

When the reporter revealed the deception and asked the flabbergasted victims why they so readily handed him money and private information, they all gave pretty much the same answer: "Because of the uniform. Because of the sign." In other words, "Because you looked authoritative."

The Rule of Authority

What? Am I saying that these people just handed over cash, checks, and private information merely because a guy in an official-looking uniform asked them to? Yup. That's what I'm saying.

This is one of the finest examples I've ever seen of the Rule of Authority — the principle that people are instantly deferential to those in positions of power. It's not just security guards and people in uniforms who command our obedience, though, it's anyone with authority, special knowledge, impressive credentials, or even an air of confidence.

And it's not just those with actual power to whom we kowtow, it's anyone with the "symbols" of authority. In other words, when someone "appears" to be authoritative, we act as if they are, regardless of their actual position.

What kind of symbols do we look for in evaluating authority? Here are three of the most basic:

  1. Titles: such as Dr., Professor, Ph.D., President, or Chairman
  2. Clothing: such as hospital whites, army greens, priestly black, police blues, or even a gray business suit
  3. Trappings: anything that usually goes along with particular positions, such as guns and badges for security personnel, prestigious letterhead for executives, expensive cars or watches for successful entrepreneurs, etc.

Why do people respond to authority figures? Because we grow up surrounded by those bigger, smarter, and more experienced than ourselves. We are taught to do what we're told. And we're often punished for disobedience.

First it's our parents. Later it's our teachers. Then it's policemen, politicians, bosses, lawyers, priests, and gurus. And in this age of narrow specialization, we're more prone than ever to look to experts (or those we perceive to be experts) to give us the answers and show us the way.

Which diet will take off those extra pounds? Well, here's a nationally-recognized weight-loss authority who says she has the answer. She's got a doctorate in nutrition. She dresses in exercise gear. And her books and tapes are in every book store. Titles, clothes, and trappings. Sure, we'll give it a whirl.

And this kind of instant reaction to perceived authority isn't unusual, it's natural. In fact, it's downright beneficial. How could we get through life without being able to rely on all those authority figures to guide us and protect us?

Ah. And that's where it gets good. Because, since our reaction to authority is so powerful and immediate, those "in the know" can use this principle to get a "yes" response more often.

The Rule of Authority works just like all the other rules in this series. It's what psychologists call a "decision heuristic," which is a highfalutin way of saying "a shortcut for making decisions."

Life is too complicated for people to methodically evaluate every element of every situation, so we all learn to take shortcuts to help us make decisions based on very limited information.

If you're looking for a doctor, for example, you don't run an in-depth investigation, you just pick one out of the phone book. Then when you're in the office, you look on the wall to see what school he or she graduated from. You put your life in that doctor's hands based solely on whether a piece of paper on the wall looks official. Throw in a white frock, a stethoscope around the neck, and your sold. You're ready to do just about anything this person tells you.

Authority Is Good, but Credibility Is Better

Now that I've revealed the Rule of Authority, you're already thinking how you can use this idea in your promotions. To pump up the credentials of your letter signer. To add impact to your on-air spokesperson. To change the look and tone of your messages to feel more confident and authoritative.

But wait. While titles, clothing, and trappings can certainly go a long way toward helping you get to "yes," I'd like to suggest that you go one more step. Instead of just giving the "appearance" of authority, why not establish "actual" authority.

I'm talking about credibility. Real credibility.

And what does it take to establish credibility? According to a mountain of psychological research, there are four basic elements: 1) Expertise, 2) Trustworthiness, 3) Similarity, and 4) Physical Attractiveness. The first two are most important, but they all play a part.

Expertise — Having relevant knowledge is the key to expertise. What special education do you have? What kind of experience? Have you demonstrated unusual competence in a relevant area? What are your big successes? What about awards or public recognition? People look for clues about what you know and what you've done.

However, these clues must be relevant to the subject at hand. If you're selling accounting software, the fact that you graduated from Harvard may show you're smart — but the fact that you're an experienced and successful accountant is far better.

Trustworthiness — Perhaps even more important than expertise is trustworthiness. Do people feel they can trust you? The answer is based on what people perceive your intentions to be. People want to know why you take the position you do.

Among the reasons for people rating you low on the trustworthiness scale are a "knowledge bias" or "reporting bias."

If your prospect thinks your background or particular experience prevents you from being objective, there's a "knowledge bias." That means there's always more persuasion when you take a position that people don't expect you to take. If you're writing a letter to raise funds for a conservative cause, imagine how powerful it could be to have a liberal delivering the message. If a liberal buys into the idea, it must be convincing!

If your prospect thinks you are just saying what people want to hear, there's a "reporting bias." So, you'll be more persuasive when it seems you are saying what you really believe. That often means admitting that there are two sides to an issue or acknowledging flaws before presenting your position.

Similarity — While Expertise and Trustworthiness are most important, Similarity can also figure into Credibility. We tend to pay more attention to those who are like us.

Deep down in our minds, we ask: Do you think like me? Are your ideals like mine? Are you from the same social class as I am? Do you look like me? And the more yeses we come up with, the more likely we are to like that person and grant his or her requests.

Of course, Similarity depends on relevance. For example, if you're selling computers, you'll be more effective if you agree with your prospect that software can be hard to learn than if you reveal you belong to the same political party.

Physical Attractiveness — The final Credibility key is one most of us won't want to admit to: physical attractiveness. There's no way around it, you and I are more likely to pay attention to attractive people. This is for a variety of reasons.

Attractiveness produces the "halo effect" — the pleasant feeling we get from an attractive person is associated with the message that person delivers. And according to various studies, attractive people are seen as better communicators and more fluent.

In addition, liking and identification play a part, since people like and identify with attractive people, thinking "I can be like that person if I believe what she believes, says what she says, or does what she does."

One caveat: Extreme attractiveness can be distracting and may reduce persuasion. This isn't rocket science, you just have to remember that the level of attractiveness must meet a prospect's expectations. You have to have beautiful hair to sell shampoo, for example, but you don't have to be a model to give medical advice as a doctor.

Putting Credibility to Work

Remember, the only reason that direct marketing works is that it gives people a more convenient and exclusive way to buy things, get information, donate to their favorite causes, and perform other transactions.

However, basic human instincts are still at work. Most people prefer to see, feel, and shake something before they buy it. Some people never shop by mail because they can't touch the merchandise first.

Therefore, Credibility is essential. How do you get it? Keep it? Like this:

BONUS: The Final Rules

During this series of articles, we've discussed four powerful rules of psychological persuasion:

1. The Rule of Reciprocity — People are driven to repay debts. Give something away to create a feeling of indebtedness. Then ask for what you want.

2. The Rule of Consistency — People are compelled to be consistent with their past actions. Get people to take a stand on what they honestly agree with now. Align your product with your prospect's current sense of consistency.

3. The Rule of Social Proof — Most people are imitators. If you want someone to do something, show others doing it.

4. The Rule of Authority — The mere symbols of authority (titles, clothing, and trappings) are often enough to gain instant compliance. However, for added persuasion, establish genuine credibility through Expertise, Trustworthiness, Similarity, and Physical Attractiveness.

Now I'd like to give you the final two rules — briefly. I'm doing this because they are particularly easy to understand, and do not warrant a full article at this time. They are the Rule of Liking and the Rule of Scarcity.

5. The Rule of Liking — People are far more likely to say "yes" to those they know and like. Get your prospect to like you first by showing similarity, with flattery and praise, and by demonstrating cooperation. Work with your target as an ally with common goals.

6. The Rule of Scarcity — That which is rare or is becoming less available is always more appealing. Show genuine scarcity in the most tangible way you can. Point out what will be lost by not responding. People fear loss, so generate a feeling of potential loss.

Note: I am indebted to Robert B. Cialdini, Ph.D. for his personal advice and his book Influence: The Psychology of Persuasion.

Copyright © 1998 Dean Rieck. All Rights Reserved.
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