Give people permission

If an authority figure tells people to do something, it removes individual responsibility.


  • Anheuser Busch use authority and responsibility as the key factors in its “Responsible Drinker” campaign. Its main website contains content from the Budweiser sponsored NASCAR driver Kevin Harvick, who talks about the importance of having a designated driver when out drinking. In this context as a professional race car driver, Harvick is seen as a voice of authority.
  • WebMD is a trusted online source of medical information, and its advertisers use WebMD’s authority to help sell their products by association with the authoritative, advice-giving site. WebMD devotes whole sections of its site to sponsored content, where the sponsor has complete editorial control. Without reading the small print, it’s hard to know where the authoritative voice of the site ends and the advertorial content starts.


In his now-infamous psychological study (here’s the original paper), Stanley Milgram told participants that they were helping him with experiments into memory and learning. Participants played the role of “teacher,” and their task was to administer electric shocks to a “learner” if they gave wrong answers, starting at 15 volts and rising in 15-volt steps to 450 volts.

Sixty percent of participants went all the way to 450 volts, even after hearing screams, pleading, or an ominous silence from the “learner.” Many were obviously uncomfortable continuing to this level, showing physical and mental signs of distress, but most still bowed to the wishes of the authority figure.

It turns out that individuals can “morally disengage” when an authority figure requires them to act. This moral disengagement takes several forms. Moral disengagement is also easier if a group collectively engages in the activity because then moral responsibility is diffused among the individuals.

How to use authority to give people permission

  • Create an authoritative stance, either by association with people who truly have authority or by using the trappings and language of authoritative people.
  • Give people permission by providing them with reasons to do the thing they otherwise might not. Typically those reasons fall into one of the following categories:
    • Moral justification: “We’re fighting a ruthless oppressor.”
    • Euphemistic labeling: Civilian deaths during war are called “collateral damage.”
    • Advantageous comparison: “We’re killing lots of people in this country so that they don’t turn into communists, which would be worse.”
    • Displacement of responsibility: “I was just following orders.”
    • Diffusion of responsibility: “Everyone else was doing the same thing” or “I only played a small part.”
    • Distortion of consequences: “There was no real harm.”
    • Give people a small role to play so that they don’t feel entirely responsible. For instance, carrying out only one part of a procedure may allow people to morally disengage, even if they’d refuse to perform the whole procedure.
    • To purposefully withhold permission, use an authority figure to make individuals take responsibility for an action. For instance, by following a race car driver’s lead and signing up to be responsible drivers, people accept that they no longer have permission to drink alcohol.