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Persuasive Web Design, Part 26: Obedience to Authority


We tend to listen to — and obey — people who are (or appear to be) in positions of authority.

If you've ever taken a Psychology course, you will doubtless remember Stanley Milgram's classic and frightening series of experiments.

When asked to administer painful, seemingly dangerous electric shocks, it's astonishing how far people went. Even Milgram himself was surprised: Almost 2/3 of test subjects administered shocks up to what they believed was a dangerous level ("450 volts").

Why did subjects comply? Why did they do something they clearly knew was wrong?

Because they were ordered to proceed by an authority figure. (In this case, a professor at Yale University.)

Later studies (and real-world examples) have shown that in determining who's an authority, people have surprisingly low standards and respond instinctively:

  • White lab coat and stethoscope? "Must be a doctor, must heed his advice..."
  • Blue uniform? "Must be a police officer, must obey..."
  • Snappy business suit? "Must be a respected business person, must consider his opinions..."

How can you use "Obedience to Authority" to make your website more persuasive?

1. Look like an authority figure.

Display the appropriate credentials (degrees, certifications, etc.) And from your Home page to your About page, show authority figures in imagery.

In health-related websites, photos of doctors and nurses are powerful and appropriate. In other fields, authority figures might be:

  • Business people
  • Blue-collar workers (mechanics, plumbers, etc.)
  • Athletes
  • Chefs or nutritionists
  • Security guards
  • Bureaucrats, government officials
  • Computer geeks

So the first step is to understand what the "markers of authority" are in your field. Then make sure your website highlights these markers.

2. Act like an authority figure.

Speak with confidence, don't hedge. Lead discussions and blogs, post videos, etc.

If you act like a leader in your field, you will be perceived as such. And visitors will be much more likely to take your advice.


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