The Natural Law of Authority

The Natural Law of Authority states that we believe and act on the advice and direction given to us by those we perceive to be in authority.

A study in the Journal of Applied Social Psychology highlights the effect of authority perception. Students were given the assignment to persuade other students to jay walk or cross a busy intersection against the traffic signal. Some students were dressed in regular school day attire. Others were dressed in business attire, while the final group was dressed in law enforcement uniforms. Not surprisingly, the group dressed in law enforcement attire was far more successful in getting pedestrians to cross against the traffic signal than their plain-clothed counterparts.

Perception of authority can come from many directions like dress, educational degrees and other credentials, positioning, testimonials or endorsements by others who people perceive to be in authority. Perceived authority is increased or decreased upon every interaction. A person either gains more perceived authority or credibility or less credibility every time he or she interacts with others.

How much perceived authority do you have with your constituency? A recent example in the dental world might be instructive. Let’s say a patient comes in with an article from a popular magazine that says studies are inconclusive as to whether new oral cancer detection technologies are effective. Let’s say you are using one of those technologies. Who is the patient going to believe – you or the article? It all depends on your level of perceived authority in the patient’s eyes.

If you are using the technology because it legitimately helps you see tissue abnormalities in most patients, then you explain that to the patient. As long as you have perceived authority, and state your case with clarity and sound logic, your credibility and perceived authority go up in the patient’s eyes. If the patient believes the article more than you, it is a sign that you are in trouble!

We all believe and act on the direction and advice given to us by those we perceive to be in authority. What are you doing to build your legitimate and perceived authority in the eyes of your constituency?

Action items:

1. Display your credentials visibly and with class.

2. Look the part. Dress the way people expect an authority in your area of expertise to dress.

3. Get regular endorsements and testimonials by others who are perceived to be in authority.

4. Stay up to date on the latest information and trends in your area of expertise. Always be prepared to explain logically and clearly where you stand and why.

5. Learn to speak understandably and clearly. People believe those who they can understand.

The Natural Law of Authority. It is just one more way that we all simplify our decisions and make it easier to act.


1. Bushman BJ. Perceived symbols of authority and their influence on compliance. Journal of Applied Social Psychology. July 2006;14(6):501-508.

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