Perception of Authority

Written By: Rob Gabriele | Updated September 28, 2023

Perception of Authority

Most people love the idea of being their own boss. After all, wouldn't it be lovely to set your own hours, make up your own rules, or establish your own limitations?

Still, even if you are your own boss, everyone answers to someone. Whether it's a police officer writing you a speeding ticket or a TSA agent telling you to remove your shoes, authority figures are all around us. And since you can't change the rules (or laws, as the case might be), you may not have the best relationship or opinion of people in positions of power.

So which authority figures instill the most trust in Americans, and which make us feel uncomfortable? To find out, we surveyed over 1,000 people about their perceptions of people in power, ranging from doctors and firefighters to politicians and the president of the United States. Read on to see what we uncovered about authority bias in America.

Power Perceptions

Research suggests that if you have a bad relationship with people in positions of authority, it may just be how you're built. For some people, a desire to rebel against control can be wired into the natural chemistry of their brains. Referred to as a “control aversion,” defiance has been mapped to the parietal and frontal regions of the brain.

Perceived Trustworthiness of Authority Figures

When respondents were asked how they perceived 17 unique positions of power, we found paramedics, firefighters, doctors, and teachers were the most likely to be seen as trustworthy. Studies suggest trust has been falling for years among Americans, and distrust of people in the medical profession can be especially dangerous. Ninety percent of people perceived paramedics and firefighters as the most trustworthy authority figures, followed by 85% who said the same of doctors.

People in positions of power were generally considered less trustworthy than people in positions of service. Twenty-two percent of Americans considered police untrustworthy, which followed TSA agents (24%), Border Patrol agents (29%), company CEOs/presidents (31%), governors (37%), lawyers (39%), the U.S. president (48%), and congressional members (49%).

The distrust of politicians in America has been growing for years. Compared to 3% of the U.S. population who had no confidence in the government's ability to manage domestic problems in 1972, 1 in 5 say the same thing today. Altogether, 45% of those surveyed claimed people in government positions were untrustworthy.

Partisan Divide

There isn't much that Democrats and Republicans can agree on, especially these days. By most accounts, political partisanship is more intense than ever, and that may extend to perceptions of people in power. While self-identified Democrats and Republicans largely agreed on the trustworthiness of paramedics, firefighters, and doctors, their opinions differed regarding educators. Compared to 89% of Democrats, 78% of Republicans considered teachers trustworthy. Similarly, while 85% of Democrats perceived professors as trustworthy, just 66% of Republicans agreed.

Perceived Trustworthiness of Authority Figures, by Political Affiliation

However, both Democrats and Republicans were nearly equal in their level of distrust for governors and congressional members. And when asked about Border Patrol agents, Democrats were far more distrusting (44%) than Republicans (12%). 

Uncomfortable Encounters

For some people, doubting the sincerity of authority figures may be less about perception and more a matter of experience. Twenty-nine percent of Americans had a negative experience with government officials, followed by nearly 20% who said the same of law and security enforcement.

Authority Figures in Public Spaces

While almost 45% of people rated their interactions with legal practitioners as neither positive nor negative, 15% had an unfavorable history with lawyers and legal counsel.

In total, 44% of Americans said a uniformed presence made them uncomfortable in public spaces, including 46% who identified feeling nervous around police officers and 23% who felt the same doubt toward soldiers. While those who owned firearms were less likely to be uncomfortable with police officers, over 1 in 4 people admitted deliberately avoiding interactions with people in uniforms.

Safety Concerns

Influence of Authorities on Sense of Safety

People in uniform might make some Americans feel uncomfortable, but government officials were perceived as having the worst impact on personal safety. Compared to 70% of people who said interacting with medical professionals helped improve feelings of personal safety, 11% of people confirmed law and security enforcement worsened their personal safety.

What We've Learned

In some cases, people in positions of authority (many of who have been tasked with aiding or serving the general public) inspire less than confidence in us. Whether it is personal interactions with government officials or perceptions of lawyers and judges, many Americans believed people in high-profile positions were untrustworthy. And who inspires trust can vary dramatically based on a person's political affiliation.

Methodology and Limitations

To conduct this study, we surveyed 1,011 Americans about their perceptions of authority figures. Everyone was eligible to qualify to take our survey.

Respondents ranged in age from 19 to 83 with an average age of 39 and a standard deviation of 11.9. 533 respondents identified as women, 473 as men, and five respondents identified as neither men nor women. Political affiliation was distributed as follows: 444 Democrats, 243 Republicans, 264 Independents, and 60 reported as “other.”

The data for this study rely on self-reporting by the respondents. Problems with self-reporting can include selective memory, telescoping, and exaggeration. With surveying a larger number of respondents, it is possible that our results might have looked differently.

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