• Terry R. Bacon

How to Be More Effective at Legitimizing



Legitimizing is an appeal to authority, which means that you influence others by using authority or citing an authority. When you use legitimizing, you are justifying your position or request by citing an authority that supports you. Here are some examples of legitimizing:


  • Traffic signs or stoplights. People generally obey traffic signs and stoplights because there are laws for using motorized or non-motorized vehicles on public roads and streets.

  • Titles and positions. Certain titles convey authority, such as professor, doctor, officer, judge, president, director, supervisor, boss, minister, priest, rabbi, imam, sheikh, teacher, and so on. People are more inclined to listen to, believe, and adhere to the advice or direction of someone whose title indicates that they have special expertise or otherwise have the authority to make or enforce rules.

  • Institutions, such as a religion or church, a legislative body, a political party, a government agency, the local or national police, the military, a court, and so on.

  • Laws, regulations, standards, certifications, and traditions, including cultural customs.

  • Accomplishments or honors, such as a Nobel Prize winner, an Eagle Scout, a PhD, an Olympic gold medal, and so on.

People often look to experts or authorities for guidance or clarity, for a “proven” path forward, especially when they are uncertain, anxious, or afraid. They want order rather than chaos. They seek to simplify the world and the decisions they must make, so a traffic light is welcome (unless they are in a hurry) because it organizes their world and allows them to operate with a minimum of decision-making effort. People understand that laws create social and legal structures that enables us to live together more-or-less peacefully and to earn our livings and raise our families in peace. So we are inclined to accept and obey laws, rules, and regulations. Of course, there are exceptions, but responding to authority is something we are taught from the moment we are born. When we disobey authority, we are often punished, so we learn to live with authority and recognize the consequences if we do not. When a mother says, “Because I said so,” that is her exercising her legitimate authority as a parent, and it is usually sufficient to influence the child she is speaking to.


Tips on Using Legitimizing


  • Legitimizing is not complicated. Generally, the most effective way to legitimize is simply to cite an authority:

As you know, the law recently changed. Now it requires us to. . . .

I checked the regulation again, and it calls for two years’ records before the agency will. . . .

According to the (Bible, Koran,Torah, or other holy book). . . .

The Supreme Court has ruled that. . . .

A yellow light means slow down and prepare to stop, not speed up.

I’ve read three reviews of this film, and they all say it. . . .

The police car behind us is flashing its red lights.

In his most recent book, Doctor Hill wrote that. . . .

In our culture, it is customary to. . . .

The boss wants our report by close of business today.

Dad said to come down for dinner.

  • It is important to recognize that everyone responds to some authority sometimes. However, not everyone responds to the same authority, so you need to know your audience well. When you want to influence people by legitimizing, you should know what kind of authority they find credible. Use this influence technique only with people who are inclined to respond to the type of authority you are citing.

  • All people respond to some type of authority, but some people have an aversion to control and are more likely to rebel against authority if they perceive it as an attempt to control them. They are iconoclastic and rebellious by nature and will resist the kinds of authority they consider intrusive and controlling. To a rebellious teenager, any use of parental authority is likely to provoke resistance. With people who react adversely to authority, either do not use legitimizing or legitimize only by citing the kind of authority you know they will accept.

  • Do not use legitimizing with someone who is a higher or greater authority than the authority you are citing.

  • Avoid being heavy-handed when you legitimize. Use authority to justify a request or reinforce a statement, rather than pressuring someone into complying. If you sense resistance, switch to logical persuading. Cite facts and logical arguments for complying.

  • Recognize that legitimizing normally results in compliance, not commitment. Legitimizing is a useful influence technique when you are simply trying to get someone to comply with your request or agree with your position, and it often results in quick compliance (like stopping at a stop sign). But legitimizing rarely leads to passionate commitment.

  • Do not try to legitimize by proclaiming your own expertise. Some people will doubt you or think you are grandstanding. It is best if someone else introduces you and tells them you are an expert.

  • The authorities you cite do not have to be real; they must only appear real. People are more inclined to follow someone or take that person’s advice if the person has the air of authority and is dressed authoritatively (in a uniform, for instance, or in formal clothing). If you adopt the symbols of authority (uniforms, badges, appropriate dress, and so on), people are more likely to accept your legitimizing.

How to Avoid Being Conned


Naturally, the false assumption of authority can be dishonest and abusive. Con artists are aware that people respond to legitimizing and act like they have the legitimate right to exercise authority. So, beware of someone who acts like an authority or presents badges of authority but does not appear to be acting in your best interests. In many email and phone scams, the messenger claims to be from the Internal Revenue Service or a similar enforcement agency and says you owe them money.


If you receive such an email, look at the URL it is coming from. The scammers have to use URLs that are suspect in some way. If it is a phone scam, ask for the name of the caller’s supervisor and telephone number. Hang up and call that number. If you are still suspicious, ask for that person’s supervisor and telephone number. Legitimizing is unfortunately a technique crooks use to con people, so beware.


Obviously, you should resist the temptation to behave badly yourself by assuming authority you do not have in order to manipulate others. That is immoral, unethical, and usually illegal.



For a more in-depth discussion of this influence technique, see Chapter 3 in Elements of Influence (AMACOM Press, 2012). This book is available at Amazon.com and other online retailers.



Photo credits: Czech activist Anna Martinkova: Photo 172741114 © Vynikal | Dreamstime.com;

doctor in lab coat: Photo 6599523 © Jonathan Ross | Dreamstime.com; judge wielding gavel: Photo 29663138 © Photographerlondon | Dreamstime.com

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