Cultural Differences in Appealing to Authority

One way people try to influence each another is by appealing to authority, which I refer to as legitimizing.  Although legitimizing is the least-frequently used influence technique in the world, it nonetheless occurs with enough frequency that it’s important to understand how and when it works.

Legitimizing is as ubiquitous as the air we breathe, so much so that we often don’t recognize the technique when it’s used—or become aware that we are complying with it.  When you try to influence someone by legitimizing, you are saying, in essence, “Trust me, believe me, or obey me because some authority says you should.” The authority you are appealing to could be a parent, boss, police officer, judge, cleric, teacher, or other person or institution that the person you are trying to influence would consider an authority.

People legitimize in many different ways.  It occurs, for instance, when someone wears or displays the symbols of law or authority—a police officer’s uniform and badge, a judge’s robes and gavel, a military person’s uniform and insignia of rank, the robes of a monk or cleric, and so on.  Highway signs are symbols of the legitimate authority of the government to regulate traffic.  The red cross on the side of an ambulance is a symbol of medical authority, and the vestments worn by some religious leaders are symbols of ecclesiastical authority. 

People also legitimize when they cite a person’s title, position, or role (“She is the CEO”) or by citing a group representing authority (“Congress voted on this measure. . .”).  Or by citing accomplishments or honors (“He is a Nobel Prize winner” or “She won the Strega prize in 2007”).  They legitimize by citing previous works, precedents, or publications or by citing a person of renown or something that person said (“Mahatma Gandhi said that you must be the change you want to see in the world.”).

Finally, people legitimize when they cite an agreement (“We agreed to finish the project by next Wednesday”); a behavioral norm, moral, or tradition (“It’s traditional for us to share a meal before we discuss business”); or a law, regulation, or generally accepted standard (“According to the city’s fire code, that door must open outwards”).

One of the advantages of legitimizing is that it can influence a number of people very quickly.  A traffic light turning red is meant to cause drivers to stop at an intersection—and this works in many countries.  The sign “Men” on a lavatory in an airport influences all men to enter this room if they need to and all women to seek their own lavatory.  It should be clear that civilization would not function at all without a considerable amount of legitimizing to regulate the way people behave and the choices they make.

The drawback to legitimizing is that some people are antiauthoritarian by nature and will resist some types of authority (but not others).  Their degree of compliance will depend on how much they respect the authority being cited and whether they believe their compliance is necessary or advantageous to them.  Generally speaking, the less respect people have for authority, the less influenced they will be by the legitimizing technique.

Although legitimizing works everywhere in the world, the people in some countries are more prone to be influenced by it than others.

The frequency norm for all countries is 4.79 (on a 7-point Likert scale).  The countries with the highest frequency of use are the United States (5.06) and then Venezuela, Singapore, China, Colombia, and India.  These countries’ average frequency rating is 5.03, 0.24 higher than the norm.  The countries with the lowest frequency ratings are Sweden (4.32) and then Norway, Finland, Netherlands, Denmark, and Switzerland, with an average rating of 4.40 (considerably below the norm—and significantly lower than the average for the countries with the highest frequency of use).

It’s not surprising that the Scandinavian countries would be so far below the norm on the frequency of use of legitimizing.  These countries are score relatively low on power distance in the GLOBE study of cultural differences among societies and are traditionally less authoritarian.  It’s also not surprising that some more regimented societies like China and Singapore would score among the highest in the frequency of use of legitimizing.  However, it may be surprising to some readers that the United States scores the highest in the use of this influence technique.  It may be that in a country as large and diverse as the U.S. people need to rely more on authority to preserve the public order, or it may be that Americans respect authority more than they allow themselves to think they do.

In any case, appealing to authority is likely to work much better in the U.S., China, Singapore (and other countries in Asia), Venezuela, Colombia, and India than it is in Scandinavia or Switzerland.  For more information on differences in power and influence across the globe, see the Cultural Differences section of this Web site. 

You will also find more information on the sources of power in my book The Elements of Power:  Lessons on Leadership and Influence (AMACOM, January 2011), and more on the use of influence techniques in Elements of Influence: The Art of Getting Others to Take Your Lead (forthcoming from AMACOM later in 2011).


NOTE:  The GLOBE study is one of the latest and most comprehensive studies of global cultural differences.  See Robert J. House, Paul J. Hanges, Mansour Javidan, Peter W. Dorfman, and Vipin Gupta, eds.,  Culture, Leadership, and Organizations:  The GLOBE Study of 62 Societies (London:  SAGE Publications, 2004).

Photo of a British bobby © David Kneafsey/  Photo of a Buddhist monk © Bartosz Hadyniak/


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