Whereas reward and coercive power are likely to produce the desired behavior, other types of power, which are not so highly focused around reward and punishment, are more likely to create changes in attitudes (private acceptance) as well as behavior. In many ways, then, these sources of power are stronger because they produce real belief change. Legitimate power is power vested in those who are appointed or elected to positions of authority, such as teachers, politicians, police officers, and judges, and their power is successful because members of the group accept it as appropriate. We accept that governments can levy taxes and that judges can decide the outcomes of court cases because we see these groups and individuals as valid parts of our society. Individuals with legitimate power can exert substantial influence on their followers.
Those with legitimate power may not only create changes in the behavior of others but also have the power to create and change the social norms of the group. In some cases, legitimate power is given to the authority figure as a result of laws or elections, or as part of the norms, traditions, and values of the society. The power that the experimenter had over the research participants in Milgram’s study on obedience seems to have been primarily the result of his legitimate power as a respected scientist at an important university. In other cases, legitimate power comes more informally, as a result of being a respected group member. People who contribute to the group process and follow group norms gain status within the group and therefore earn legitimate power.
In some cases, legitimate power can even be used successfully by those who do not seem to have much power. After Hurricane Katrina hit the city of New Orleans in 2005, the people there demanded that the United States federal government help them rebuild the city. Although these people did not have much reward or coercive power, they were nevertheless perceived as good and respected citizens of the United States. Many U.S. citizens tend to believe that people who do not have as much as others (for instance, those who are very poor) should be treated fairly and that these people may legitimately demand resources from those who have more. This might not always work, but to the extent that it does it represents a type of legitimate power—power that comes from a belief in the appropriateness or obligation to respond to the requests of others with legitimate standing.