Authority : accepting it, denying it, creating it


We must know how the first ruler, from whom
any one claims, came by his authority.
-- Locke


Why should we ask ourselves questions about authority ? It is a very familiar notion after all. However, being permanently immersed inside it make it maybe difficult to judge with enough distance. It could be possible that its omnipresence inhibits any natural reflexion about it.

In this world, authority is all around us. It is not a fact everyone is happy with, since it gives us the impression it surrounds and overflows our freedom. Authority means power ; in any environment, to be part of the authority is perceived as a priviledge. Nevertheless, the concept of authority is maybe more abstract than it seems and raises a few questions. How is created the atmosphere of authority ? Does everybody agree to respect it ? What are the circumstances which make us accept or deny authority ?

In our trip we will explore common phenomena associated to the notion of authority : conformity, where it will be seen that there exist dominant behaviours, and obedience, where it will be studied why people execute orders or accept requests. Then we will confront these considerations to daily life, in both fields of education and politics.


The adjective ``conformist'' is generally used to design someone who follows the rules, and is sometimes associated with a lack of personality. With a more sociological point of view, we will call conformity [CLA*]1 a modification of the behaviour which tends to align itself on one or several people's one. These kinds of modifications are often unconscious. To take a simple example, you're more likely to laugh when other people laugh, or seem to laugh. Think about the recorded laughs one can hear during sitcoms. Another example can be resumed by a single constatation : yawning is contagious...


Are you conformist ? Probably not. You are even somewhat proud of your independent mind, but you do not speak too much about that. Most of the people agree to say that they believe firmly in their own convictions and will not conform easily to other people's opinion. However, in a famous experiment [ASC], Solomon Asch tried to prove that conformity can happen even when reality is obvious.

Asch's experiment...

Imagine the following situation : you are asked to take part in a psychological experiment. When you arrive, you do not know yet that in fact, all the other subjects are partcipants and that you are the only guinea-pig.

Now the experimenter comes and announces the topic : visual discrimination. You are shown patterns with lines of different lengths, and are required to say which one of the lines is similar to a reference. By a pure coincidence, you are the last to answer. The first turns are quick and without incidents. Everyone gives the right answer. You find the test really easy. In fact, but you ignore it too, a pre-test showed that anyone with a correct vision who tried the test alone was completely successful. So, for the moment you are not really concentrated, your thoughts are elsewhere. But, wait a minute, what happens ? The first participant just gave a wrong answer, but without any kind of hesitation. Did he become blind ? Then the second one gives the same aberrant answer too. While you're looking for an explanation, everybody has answered, everybody seems to have given an incorrect answer, with sureness, as if everything was normal. It is now your turn to speak.

Well, 37% of the people conformed by also giving the same wrong answer. For the whole series of tests of this kind, 75% conformed at least once.

Why did the people adjust their comportment on the preponderant one ? Someone could have changed his mind :

because he thought that other participants were convinced to be right, that it could not be a coincidence, that maybe they had access to information he ignores, and finally admits he could be wrong (private conformity2)
because he thought that another behaviour would have been perceived negatively by the other participants and he would have been consequently marginalized ; notice that in this case he is still persuaded that he knows the correct answer and however gives a different one (public conformity3)

The first reason evoked above has been accurately described by Sherif, a pioneer in the study of conformity. In an unfamiliar situation, other's behaviours become, at least at first sight, a criterion, a model to follow, so the tendency to conform himself is natural and oriented by instinct. The second one, more subjective, indicating a desire to be well perceived, to be ``integrated'', or at least not to have problems, is easily understandable in our society. This is Asch's ``peer pressure'' theory.

These reasonings are underlying in a tale of Andersen4, where two merchants sell the Emperor an invisible costume, claiming the whole empire that only clever people can see it and feel it's softness. Every citizen congratulates the Emperor for his splendid clothes, not telling they do not see the costume. They simply do not want to be considered as a fool by the other people. But in fact the truth is simple : the Emperor is naked.

The situation is quite different in the experiment if at least one person plays the ``partner'' by giving everytime the right answers : the conformity rate falls to only 6%. To see another mind breaking the consensus omnium appears to release the pressure on someone who disagrees with the unanimity. Moreover, if the guinea-pig answers the first with the opportunity to change its answer at the end of the turn (without partner), the conformism rate is also around 6%, inducing that standing proudly his ground seems (once again at first sight) more important than to be categorized ``different''. Being constant may be a way to show his strong personality.

Of course one can contest this experiment by claiming that it is really too artificial and that people do not have enough time to take a wise decision. Even though, this kind of phenomenon occurs naturally, for this reason we should keep a critical mind faced with any kind of unilateral situation. It could be added that some subjects, once revealed the real sense of the experiment, still continued to affirm that their answer was correct and that they never realized that other participants gave weird answers. You see here up to which point the majority can alter our perception of the reality as it is felt as a trustworthy authority.


So it has been shown that someone could conform to adapt his behaviour to the dominant one. However other studies, in particular Moscovici's ones, demonstrate how a minority of people could exercise influence on group decisions. In his book Social Influence [TUR], Turner suggests that ``...[the minority can influence the majority if] :

  • the minority disrupts the established norm and produces doubt and uncertainty in the mind of the majority
  • the minority makes itself visible, focuses attention on itself
  • the minority shows that there is an alternative, coherent point of view
  • the minority demonstrates certainty, confidence and commitment to this point of view
  • the minority signals that it will not move or compromise
  • the minority implies that the only solution to restore social stability and cognitive coherence is for the majority to shift towards the minority''

Actually, most of the majority seem to conform less by belief than in order to avoid social conflict. The various Moscovici's studies exhibited two conditions for the minority to be influent and efficient : internal (synchronic consistency) and temporal (diachronic consistency) uniformity.

Moscovici's experiment...

Pretending an experiment about color perception, Moscovici invites volunteers to take part in a test. Two of them are assistants, playing the active minority. A first collective test shows everyone that each subject has a good vision. After that, slides are projected, representing miscellaneous blue taints. Participants are asked which color they see, and each time the assistants answer ``green''. A few genuine participants are immediatly influenced ; they pretend too seeing green diapositives. Others say ``green'' later during the experiment. However a few ones keep saying ``blue'' each time.

But Moscovisci goes deeper, and pretexting a study about effects of tiredness on vision, he shows everyone a sequence of sixteen colours (forming a blue to green gradient), asking to locate the transition, i.e. to indicate which slide is the first green one. It appeared that the subjects perceived green really sooner than a witness-group. Furthermore, the more they resisted to assistants' influence in the first experiment, the sooner they saw green in the second one. This implies that the people who did not seem to be influenced have in fact been the most ones.

Nevertheless, during the post-experimental interviews, no one answered he felt he could have been influenced. So everyone of us can wonder if our thoughts symbolize our genuine ego or what our environment wishes.

Figure 1: Peer Pressure and Groupthink


In any society there are various modi vivendi ; in particular a few people will contest any kind of structure or order. Instead of wanting to be well perceived (peer pressure), they wish to systematically dissent. While the preceding minorities were potentially ready to follow a majority, such persons want before anything to oppose themselves to what could be called the establishment. It can be viewed as a kind of obstinated, nihilist behaviour. In a similar manner, nonconformist and dissident comportments may result from a feeling of dissatisfaction.

Now, we saw that when facing opposite opinions, someone can wisely modify his point of view to take into account the different appreciations of the situation, and that this alteration depends on how much legitimate were considered the other parties. The respectfulness is here a crucial point. What could happen if we trusted the supremacy too much ? How far can faith in authority go ?

Making obedient

Obedience is the phenomenon consisting in doing what an authority, or someone, requires. When it is systematic, one talks of submission.

Fear, uncertainty, doubt

Violence and threats are commonly used ways to make people accept authority. ``If you do not do this, the worst things will happen to you.''

A good illustration of that is the advertising campaigns of computer security companies. Basically, in order not to have their computers hijacked by evil hackers, the customers must buy adequate ``solutions''.

Figure 2: Fear can make you accept authority

However less fear-based stratagems, involving more psychological considerations, might be efficient.

Responsibility vs Legitimacy

The notion of responsibility is quite complex, but can be viewed as a special kind of power. To become responsible of something implies to accept a social pressure, which explains that some people may be afraid of jobs involving too much ones. However no one can deny the existence of ``incompressible'' responsabilities, dictated by conscience.

Despite of the juridic roots of the word ``legitimate'' (lex = the law), the word is also used today to express the idea of ``morally good''. Accordingly, when something is legitimate, it should be done. But would it be possible that as soon as we think that an action or an idea is legitimate, we enter a world where all is allowed to reach our goal, eliminating the notion of criticism ?

In 1961 was the trial of Adolf Eichmann in Jerusalem. One of the main points was the question ``Could it be that Eichmann, and his million accomplices in the Holocaust were just following orders?''

A few months later, at Yale University, the psychologist Stanley Milgram organized an innovative psychological experiment5 to analyze up to which point people could be controlled by authority.

Milgram's experiment...

Two persons are asked to help the scientific authority in a study trying to demonstrate that adequate shocks can help the brain to access more easily to subconscious zones and therefore improve memory. The two participants are invited to experiment a new learning process. The sort designs a teacher and a learner. The teacher reads a list of nouns with associated adjectives. Then he reads the lone adjectives, one by one. The learner is then asked to find which noun was corresponding to each adjective. In case of an error, the teacher has to administrate an electric shock to the learner, in the range 15V - 450V, each one being more intense than the precedent one. At the end, the learner should be able to perfectly remember the associations. The whole experiment is supervised by two eminent psychologists in a prestigious university.

In reality, the learner is an assistant, and gives on purpose often wrong answers, forcing the teacher to deliver him shocks of increasing intensity. The generator is impressive but factice, the learner simulates to be electrified so that the teacher is persuaded that it works. The genuine purpose of the experiment is to see when he will take the clear initiative to stop, refusing to continue to punish the learner. During the experiment, the supervisors say explicitly that they will be the unique responsible for any problem susceptible to happen to the learner. (see also the Appendix for the original description).

During a conference, before to reveal what the participants did, Milgram asked the public (essentially composed of psychologists) how they would have reacted in such a situation. Unanimously they replied that they would have stopped despite of the experimenter's orders at less than 300V.

The results of the experiment were incredible : it appeared that two-thirds of this studies participants fell into the category of 'obedient' subjects, i.e. they punished the learner to the maximum 450V. Nobody stopped before reaching 300V. No social or professional category was found more indulgent than the others.
Three weeks later, when the subjects were asked to explain their sadistic behaviour, they always rejected the fault to the scientific authority.

Figure 3: Stanley Milgram varied a lot of parameters to sharpen his analysis

When the point of no return is reached, the subjects keep on obeying blindy until the learner's death to justify everything they did beforehand.

Thus, the subjects have lost all critical sense because they assumed that all was under control of the scientific authority, who symbolized legitimacy and assumed all the responsibility. So they could not feel responsible for what they were currently doing. We can conclude that authority has completely uninhibited the personal psyche which would have conducted a normal person not to commit such cruel acts.

Progressive processes

The above submission phenomenon was not engendered by fear, but by the absolute necessarity, in the subjects minds, to comply with authority. Another way to make someone feel less responsible is to divide tasks. For instance, after an execution, the twelve shooters do not have an individual guilty feeling as significative as a unique shooter could have. Furthermore, to minimize this sorrowful feeling, one of the rifles is often loaded wih blank bullets. One talks of ``diffusion of responsibility'' [WIK*] or of ``collective polarization''.

It is not always the best idea to use direct arguments6 to convince someone of your legitimacy or to have a request satisfied.

The trigger process can be illustrated by the following story. A senior salesman gives advice to a young one about how to sell glasses : 'If a customer asks how much a pair of glasses costs, answer : $100. If he seems to agree, add ``And the lenses cost $20.'' If he still seems to agree, add ''Each one``.'

By accepting something, even a minor one, a kind of agreement link is created with the interlocutor, so it will be more difficult to refuse something after that.

On the contrary, the false concession process consists in first asking for something above your real target and finally ask for what you wanted initially as if you were making a concession. If you sell cookies, rather to sell them $1, claim that they cost $1.20 and when someone comes, explain him that because he seems nice you will drop the price to $1.

The key seems to be that after the first answer, the second request is different from the first, giving your fellow the impression that you try to adapt your solicitation to his behaviour. Thus he feels that you take his opinion into consideration and that you make efforts towards him by dramatically reconsidering your proposal for a more favorable one, and consequently will cooperate more easily.

Concrete cases

Concretely, the former considerations are widely applied. The exercice of authority was actually quite pragmatical at the beginning of history (cf opening quote), but has been progressively studied and theorized. In this report the opposite approach has been chosen, in order to emphasize the fact that contemporary visions are based both on experience and theory.


At home with their parents or at school with the teachers, children are confronted to authority as soon as there are born. They are quickly taught that there are rules to respect.

Education is a world where pupils must follow strict contraints in order to be accepted by the teachers and refuse them to be appreciated by their fellows. It is a microcosm where they are formed for their future life. The miscellaneous relationships that pupils have during their scholarship let them discover the complex interactions between humans, and among these, the ones involving authority and domination.

Furthermore, the child has no control on his or her education [LIN*]. This means that the relationship between a child and the school is a relationship of submission (II,2).7


Politics are the fruit of reflexion considering it was necessary to establish common rules between people in order to avoid conflicts. The problematic was, who would be going to decide of these rules ?

The first elaborate development of what has come to be the foundations of the social contract notion comes from the English philosopher Hobbes during the 17th century [HOB]. In this theory Hobbes distinguishes two kinds of political regimes : when people mutually agree to obey to a common authority, they establish a sovereignty by institution, whereas when they promise obedience under threat, for their personal protection, they establish a sovereignty by acquisition. In both cases, for Hobbes, the underlying motivation is the same : fear (of the neighbor or the dictator).

A few years later, Rousseau explains in The social contract why he thinks that the government does not get its authority from God but from a common consent of the people. He denounces the pernicious sides of this approval, which lead to limit our spontaneity within the society : ``Man is born free, and everywhere he is in chains'' [ROU].

Figure 4: Democracy is a sovereignty by institution

Max Weber proposes three kinds of legitimacy8 for political authority9 :

Traditional authorities receive loyalty because they continue and support the preservation of existing values, the status quo. Examples of traditional authoritarians include kings and queens. Followers submit to this authority because ``we've always done it that way''.
Charismatic authority grows out of the personal charm or the strength of an individual personality (see cult of personality for the most extreme version). Charismatic regimes are often short lived, seldom outliving the charismatic figure that leads them. Examples include Hitler, Napoleon, and Mao (however, Mao ruled long enough that his successors could invoke tradition as the source of their authority). Napoleon Bonaparte is a notable case, he was a foreigner who took the place of a traditional authority.
Legal-Rational authorities receive their ability to compel behaviour by virtue of the office that they hold. It is the office that demands obedience rather than the office holder. Modern democracies are examples of legal-rational regimes.

To be influent, powerful and authoritative has always been the announced primary objective of every political party. In order to achieve this, some of them may use ``progressive processes '' (II,3) inside their speeches and their campaigns.

Time to Conclude

What can be remembered from this text (except "wow, nice comics") ? It has been seen how authority was related to interations between people. It has also been showed that although authority arises in a natural way, the processes to create it can be completely artificial, which explains why they are analyzed and/or applied by people who want to acquire social power.

One fascinating thing about this study of authority is that what happens inside a small group is more or less the same as in a larger group, and even in a very larger group. These kinds of fractal patterns made global controls possible, i.e. authority exercised by a very few people out of a whole population. If everyone accepts this social structure, why should it change ?


Stanley Milgram explained his experiment in an article titled Behavioral study of obedience (later published in [MIL]). Here is reproduced his description of the situation which led an incredible number of people to deadly electrify their peers.

In the basic experimental designs two people come to a psychology laboratory to take part in a study of memory and learning. One of them is designated a ``teacher'' and the other a ``learner.'' The experimenter explains that the study is concerned with the effects of punishment on learning. The learner is conducted into a room, seated in a kind of miniature electric chair, his arms are strapped to prevent excessive movement, and an electrode is attached to his wrist. He is told that he will be read lists of simple word pairs, and that he will then be tested on his ability to remember the second word of a pair when he hears the first one again. whenever he makes an error, he will receive electric shocks of increasing intensity.

The real focus of the experiment is the teacher. After watching the learner being strapped into place, he is seated before an impressive shock generator. The instrument panel consists of thirty lever switches set in a horizontal line. Each switch is clearly labeled with a voltage designation ranging from 14 to 450 volts.

The following designations are clearly indicated for groups of four switches. going from left to right: Slight Shock, Moderate Shock, Strong Shock, Very Strong Shock, Intense Shock, Extreme Intensity Shock, Danger: Severe Shock. (Two switches after this last designation are simply marked XXX.)

When a switch is depressed, a pilot light corresponding to each switch is illuminated in bright red; an electric buzzing is heard; a blue light, labeled ``voltage energizer,'' flashes; the dial on the voltage meter swings to the right; and various relay clicks sound off.

The upper left hand corner of the generator is labeled SHOCK GENERATOR, TYPE ZLB. DYSON INSTRUMENT COMPANY, WALTHAM, MASS., OUTPUT 15 VOLTS - 450 VOLTS.

The subject is given a sample 45 volt shock from the generator before his run as teacher, and the jolt strengthens his belief in the authenticity of the machine.

The teacher is a genuinely naive subject who has come to the laboratory for the experiment. The learner, or victim, is actually an actor who receives no shock at all. The point of the experiment is to see how far a person will proceed in a concrete and measurable situation in which he is ordered to inflict increasing pain on a protesting victim.

Conflict arises when the man receiving the shock begins to show that he is experiencing discomfort. At 75 volts, he grunts; at 120 volts, he complains loudly; at 150, he demands to be released from the experiment. As the voltage increases, his protests become more vehement and emotional. At 285 volts, his response can be described only as an agonized scream. Soon thereafter, he makes no sound at all.

For the teacher, the situation quickly becomes one of gripping tension. It is not a game for him: conflict is intense obvious. The manifest suffering of the learner presses him to quit: but each time he hesitates to administer a shock, the experimenter orders him to continue. To extricate himself from this plight, the subject must make a clear break with authority.

List of Figures

1 Groupthink, from MYERS David G, Social Psychology, NY, Mc Graw Hill, 1996

2 Hagard the Terrible, by Chris Brown

3 Milgram's variations, from [MIL74]

4 What is Democracy,

Cover : Sinfest, by Tatsuya Ishida, 23 nov 2004


ASCH, Solomon E., Effects of group pressure upon the modification and distortion of judgement in H. Guetzkow (ed.) Groups, leadership and men. Pittsburgh, PA: Carnegie Press, 1951

Le conformisme, l'influence de la majorité, de la minorité, et la soumission à l'autorité,

HOBBES, Thomas, Leviathan, 1651

KELMAN, Herbert, Compliance, identification, and internalization: three processes of attitude change, Journal of Conflict Resolution, 2, 31-60, 1958

LINDEN, Marissa K., Authority and Education, 2000

ROUSSEAU, Jean-Jacques, The social contract, or principles of political right (Le contrat social), 1762

MILGRAM, Stanley, The Perils of Obedience, Harper's Magazine. Adapted from [MIL74]

MILGRAM, Stanley, Obedience to Authority, 1974

The Milgram experiment : A Lesson in Depravity,

TURNER, John C., Social Influence, Milton Keynes, Open University Press, 1991

Wikipedia, the free encyclopedia,, Social psychology and Politics sections

A reference available on the Internet is indicated by a star.


Every reader is warmly encouraged to look over [CLA*] since quite a number of the following ideas have been inspired by this text.
... conformity2
Herbert Kelman identified three types of conformity : compliance, i.e. conforming only publicly, identification, i.e. conforming publicly and privately, and internalization, i.e. conforming publicly and privately until leaving the group. See [KEL] for more details.
... conformity3
... Andersen4
The Emperor's New Clothes by Hans Christian Andersen, 1837
... experiment5
Illustrated in the movie I as in Icarus, 1977
... arguments6
for example, while trying to convince someone, invoking a kind of supreme authorithy with ipse dixits (he himself, said it) can be a decisive argument if the source is known as competent in the domain and evidence can be found ; this is called appeal to authority ([WIK*]).
... (II,2).7
This point and its consequences on the adulte life could be debated ad vitam eternam, so it won't be developed here.
... legitimacy8
called tripartite classification of authority
... authority9
from [WIK*]

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Authority : accepting it, denying it, creating it, by Little Neo, 2004-2005