Authority bias: when we irrationally trust the judgement of experts

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Whether it’s a doctor, a financial advisor, or a manager, we sometimes apply whatever an authority figure tells us to do, despite knowing that their recommended approach is inefficient, wrong, and potentially even dangerous. Why is that? One explanation is the authority bias. The authority bias is our tendency to be more influenced by the opinion of an authority figure, unrelated to its actual content.

Like all cognitive biases, the authority bias is a shortcut our brains use to save time and energy making decisions. Of course, placing trust in credible experts is a reasonable thing to do. However, problems arise when we rely too heavily on this heuristic and assume certain authority figures have more knowledge or skills than they actually do, which can lead to poor personal and professional outcomes.

A seminal study of obedience

In 1963, Stanley Milgram, a psychologist from Yale University, recruited forty men to participate in an experiment. These men would act as “teachers”, while a group of accomplices would act as “learners.” The learners would be asked a series of questions. Each time a learner answered incorrectly, the teacher had to administer a shock to the learner. Specifically, the participants were instructed to “move one level higher on the shock generator each time the learner flashes the wrong answer.” In other words, the more questions that the learner got wrong, the higher the voltage of the shock they supposedly received – up to 450 volts.

Throughout the experiment, the teachers could hear the learners groaning in pain and pleading to stop the experiment. However, unknown to the teachers, the shock generator was fake, and the learners were all simulating their pain. Milgram observed that the forty men showed signs of duress when administering the shocks. Some were sweating, trembling, and stuttering, especially when they thought they were administering higher-voltage shocks. Three teachers had full-blown seizures during the process.

Despite this, 65% of the men completed the experiment and administered shocks at the highest level. Why would so many of the subjects finish the experiment despite thinking it was causing harm? Milgram offered several theories about this.

First, the participants may have assumed that because the experiment took place at Yale, a highly respected university, the people involved would not conduct a dangerous or unethical experiment. The participants may also have assumed that the learners voluntarily signed up for the experiment, thus submitting themselves “to the authority system of the experimenter.” Finally, the subjects may have assumed that they had an obligation to follow the instructions, even though the experimenter could not punish them for walking away.

This laboratory experiment paved the way for everything we know today about the authority bias. And, as you will see, its effects can be seen outside of controlled experiments as well.

The real-world impact of the authority bias

The authority bias can affect decision-making in many areas, such as healthcare and business, which can have important ramifications. For instance, in a study about overprescribing antibiotics, researchers asked doctors-in-training why they would prescribe antibiotics to a patient who likely had a viral infection.

The doctors reported that if their supervisors tended to overprescribe antibiotics, they would do the same thing with their patients. Essentially, they deferred to the authority of their role models, despite knowing that the antibiotics were not likely to work in their patients.

There is also evidence of authority bias in recreational accidents. In a study of avalanche incidents, researchers found that in about half of the cases, the group chose an informal leader to guide them through the trails. While some leaders had formal training, others were selected to lead because they were older or seemed more confident.

Unfortunately, being older or more assertive does not automatically mean the leaders were more skilled than others in the group. As a result, the researchers found that when a group placed their trust in an unskilled leader, they were more likely to expose themselves to hazardous conditions than groups with no leader at all.

Finally, marketing departments sometimes take advantage of the authority bias to sell goods and services. One well-known example is the tobacco industry. In the 1930s and 1940s, cigarette companies would place advertisements that claimed that “more doctors” recommended their brand over their competitors.

They advertised in medical journals and developed relationships with doctors for advertising purposes. If people believed that doctors were recommending cigarettes, they would think cigarettes are a harmless product. Once the adverse health effects of tobacco became clear, marketers had to change strategies. Today, some brands use words like “organic,” “additive-free,” and “natural” to make their tobacco products seem healthier than they are.

However, it is possible to take conscious steps to ensure that our instinctive trust in people we perceive as experts does not result in poor decision-making.

How to deal with the authority bias

One way to deal with the authority bias is to consider our assumptions about authority figures. For example, people tend to believe that experts are 100% objective when making decisions. In fact, some experts themselves think they are exempt from biases or can overcome their biases through sheer willpower — a phenomenon researchers call “expert immunity”. Of course, these assumptions are incorrect, but we rarely take the time to consider them when deciding to apply advice we received from an authority figure.

As another example, suppose an authority figure, like a manager, asks you to do something that does not sit well with you. Should you do it anyway? You can use a method called the Five Whys technique to help you decide. First, write down the problem your manager is trying to solve. Then, jot down why you think the problem is happening. Repeat asking “why” five more times until you distill the root cause of the problem. Now, ask yourself: does the solution your manager suggested address the root cause of the problem? If not, it may be worth revisiting the topic and generating alternative solutions.

If you are an authority figure who is delivering information to others, you also need to be aware of how the authority bias may influence how your audience may receive your messages. To mitigate the authority bias while building trust with your audience, make sure to present multiple sides of the issue you want to address, and explain the evidence supporting or countering the different positions. Instead of relying on your past expertise, stay up to date and incorporate new and novel research into your portfolio. Encourage questions that may challenge your expertise on the subject. And, if you make a mistake, own it. Explain why it happened and what it means for the future.

Remember that the authority bias is very common, and happens when we accept an authority figure’s opinion as correct without considering their background, skills, knowledge, or potential biases. It can lead us to make poor decisions for ourselves and other people. But the good news is that you can mitigate its effects by considering the factors that may impact an expert’s decision-making (especially when you are the expert in question), using the Five Whys technique to assess an expert’s recommendation, and making sure you explore all sides of an issue before discussing it with others.