In 1963 Dr. Stanley Milgram published the results of one of the most famous psychological studies of all time. In this experiment, Milgram was able to convince regular people to administer what they thought was a potentially fatal shock to another participant for simply not remembering a word. Why did people do it even though they were visually disturbed by the order to do so? Because they were told to do it by an authority figure. The study was conducted at a prestigious university (Yale), which gave credibility to the experiment, and the person giving orders dressed and acted like an authority figure.
Whether it is just as easy to invoke such extreme obedience in modern culture is debatable, but it is no doubt a powerful tool of persuasion. The research consistently shows that people drastically underestimate the effect authority has on influencing people, so don’t just disregard this principle as irrelevant in our highly individualistic culture.
It’s best to think of authority on a continuum. Some people will be highly influenced by it, some will strongly react against it, and everyone else will be somewhere in the middle. Additionally, you can have different levels of authority so it’s not a situation where you either have it or you don’t. Ideally, you want to have high levels of authority though. I saved this principle for last because apologists already use this principle often, but with a few adjustments, they can gain higher levels of authority to increase the effectiveness of their apologetic arguments.
While most people in today’s culture will not blindly accept everything you say, even when you have earned their trust, some people will, especially if you are pastor, teacher, or anyone else with a position of authority. It’s easy to forget about the people who blindly accept what you say when those who disagree are so loud, but they still exist. Be careful with your words and only speak on subjects you have done the hard work to understand, which relates to the next warning.
Just like there are people who will accept everything you say, there will be people who question everything you say. If you make a claim that you cannot support, or worse, is demonstrably false, you will lose any chance you had at earning authority with anyone who heard you, which may include the people who already think highly of you as an authority.
Don’t try to superficially strengthen your case by giving arguments you don’t know very well or when the evidence is fairly uncertain (the alleged 1st-century fragment issue is a perfect example of people making premature claims on limited evidence). If you are honest and willing to admit there are limits to the evidence and to your knowledge, you should be fine.
There are several ways you can earn respect as an authority. It won’t make people automatically believe everything you say (which is good), but it will remove an emotional barrier that prevents rational thinking. As Christian apologists, we want people to think more rationally so they can understand and evaluate the arguments objectively. Gaining authority with someone accomplishes this goal.
The most obvious thing we can do to be an authority is to have academic or other credentials. This undoubtedly is good and helpful, but only if the other person values your credentials. You could be the foremost expert in the world on a subject, but if the other person does not think you are an expert on the subject, then you don’t have authority. If you have genuine authority, use subtle ways of pointing it out, but do so without coming across as an arrogant jerk. You can do this by referring to something you did in grad school, use the occasional pedantic word (but not too many), cite specific people or works that relate to the subject you are talking about, and perhaps most importantly, present a good argument against your own view.
The biggest barrier to authority is perceived bias. If someone thinks you are biased, they will never listen to anything you say, no matter how knowledgeable you are. A simple way to counter this is by honestly presenting some sort of information that is or seems to be against your own view. There was a time when I strongly rejected the teleological argument even after I became a Christian. By telling this to non-believers, it shows them that I have not religious bias for accepting this argument. When I explain how I changed my mind on the argument after gaining a better understanding of the argument and the mathematical probabilities, the tone of the discussion changes and they are much more open.
There are several similar ways you can do this. If you reject a common argument for Christianity, tell them you think it fails, and then present the ones that you think are valid. You can also point out an area where you do not think there are any good Christians answers (or at least, none that are better that atheism or other religions), and then shift to why you think Christianity is still better.
The final aspect of authority is to act the part. You can do this by the clothes you wear, they way you speak, your body language, and how you respond to their attacks. If you dress like a professional, without appearing sleazy, people will give you much more respect. The same goes for the way you carry yourself. You want to look and appear confident in every way. Stand or sit up straight, speak clearly and confidently, don’t get upset or frustrated, and be willing to listen without being condescending (which also relates to liking). All these factors are cumulative and add up to make a big difference in how people evaluate your arguments..
Authority, just like all the other principles, won’t convince anyone on its own. It will help remove biases so people can hear and understand the arguments before criticizing them. What makes authority a little different than the other principles is that there are some people who will blindly follow you based on authority while some people will blindly react against authority. You can walk the line between these extremes by being well prepared and by adjusting your presentation style or content to each individual person (more on this next week for communicating to large audiences).
Remember that even though it may not seem like authority is effective in our culture, the science shows it is. Don’t make the mistake of underestimating it. This concludes the six principles from Influence: Science and Practice, but I am still going to write one more article that covers any miscellaneous items that haven’t already been mentioned. The final one will focus heavily on very practical suggestions you can use in everyday conversations.
This article was adapted for evangelism and apologetics from a chapter in Cialdini, R. B. (2009). Influence: Science and practice 5th ed. Boston, MA: Pearson education.