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17 September 2012

Psychological Perspectives on legitimacy-Tom R. Tyler

The idea of legitimacy has a long history within social thought and is important across the social sciences. The concept of legitimacy is an ancient one, and the contribution of recent research is to test empirically its utility in a variety of social settings.

Consistent with the arguments of legitimacy theory, research shows that people are not influenced simply by the possession and use of power. Those authorities who seek to lead groups through incentives and/or coercion find it difficult to shape behaviour effectively through these mechanisms, and they have difficulty creating and maintaining their influence over others. Therefore, those leading groups, organizations, and societies benefit when they have legitimacy among the members of their groups. Leaders have legitimacy when people view their authority as being appropriate and proper, with the consequence that they feel obligated to defer to the decisions made by leaders with legitimacy and the policies and rules they create.

Dominant models of social control currently focus upon two ways that authorities can gain cooperation from the public. One way is via the threat of punishment, which promotes rule following. The other is via demonstrating competence in managing community problems, which encourages the public to help authorities. However, research findings are not consistent with these models. For example, the police have made dramatic improvements in the objective quality of their performance in recent decades, but that has not led to increases in public support for the police (National Research Council 2004, Skogan & Meares 2004). Why not? Because research suggests the public primarily views the police as legitimate, and cooperates with the police, when they experience the police as exercising their authority fairly. Hence, changes in the objective performance of the police in the control of crime and disorder do not strongly connect with public cooperation. For the police to gain cooperation, they need to focus on the fairness of police procedures, since fairer procedures would increase police legitimacy (Tyler 2004a). Similar arguments apply to the courts (Tyler 2001).

This review of recent research further suggests that legitimacy is important far beyond the prototypical case in which people defer to particular decisions made by authorities or rules created by institutions. The development of legitimizing myths that legitimate social arrangements is ubiquitous through society and is found with the justification of mechanisms for allocating economic and social status as well as with group-based differences in economic and social status. A number of studies in recent years document the pervasiveness and importance of the human desire to make sense of existing social arrangement by endowing those arrangements with the assessment that they are appropriate and reasonable. This motivation is found among those who benefit from and, more paradoxically, those who are disadvantaged by those arrangements.

Finally, research also suggests what creates and sustains legitimacy. Authorities and institutions are legitimated by the manner in which they make decisions and exercise authority. Unlike a more instrumental perspective, which suggests that authorities gain influence over others when they can either deliver desired outcomes or credibly threaten others with harm, recent research demonstrates that people’s deference to others is also based upon factors other than the ability to deliver rewards or punishments. To at least some extent, legitimacy derives from judgments about how those others exercise authority, judgments not based upon the favourability or even the fairness of the decisions the authorities make, but upon beliefs about what are fair or ethical procedures for exercising authority. Hence, the exercise of authority via fair procedures legitimates that authority, and encourages voluntary deference.