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Authority Bias – Why You Assume the Expert is Always Right

Authority Bias – Why You Assume the Expert is Always Right

Authority bias is the tendency to blindly believe the methods, opinions, strategies and advice of an authoritative person without applying thought or considering facts.

“This year we will double the marketing budget and the production,” says the CEO of the company. All the employees of the company clench their fists, pump their chests and applaud. Everyone works with a newfound vigor towards the goal.

6 months later, the plan results in a disaster leading to losses of millions of dollars. Everyone wonders how did the CEO go wrong.

Employees went through a flaw of the brain called the Authority Bias. In this article we will cover:

  • What is authority bias and why it occurs
  • Real-life examples
  • How to overcome the effect
Authority Bias

What is Authority Bias?

Authority Bias is the tendency to blindly follow or believe the instructions and views of a person in authority. As human beings, we have evolved over the millions of years as a herd, led by a leader. The leader alone, or a set of trusted advisors, made the big decisions and the rest followed suit.

As a result, human beings have a deeply rooted sense of duty to follow authority. In the age-old days, kings, queens and ministers played the role of an authority. Today, the politicians or CEO’s play the same part. Even experts in a profession such as doctors, economists, celebrities fit into the role of authorities.

In the olden days, the leader making the decision helped the kingdom overall. Not everyone had the knowledge and information to make the right decision in the past. Today, the world has moved forward. Every person has access to a vast amount of knowledge along with education to make the right call.

Accepting the statement and belief of an authority blindly does not make sense anymore. Your behavior and actions should not be solely driven by guidelines from a different person. You must apply your thoughts and judgment.

Authority bias was first demonstrated by a psychologist, Stanley Milgram through an experiment called, the Milgram Experiment.

This bias is one of the many cognitive biases your brain is vulnerable to. Other examples include confirmation bias, omission bias, availability bias and so on.

Problems of Authority Bias

People in authority might make decisions without enough thought based on instinct. In such cases, though your gut tells you something isn’t right, you do not question it. Such opinions and decisions can lead to dire consequences to you and others

In some cases, the people in authority make mistakes too. If you follow a mistake without questioning it, you will seem like the fool who jumped off the cliff, because a mountaineer asked him to do so to get over the fear of heights.

Real-life examples of Authority Bias

1. Stock Markets

Every day, people keep a close eye on the market. People follow the analysts on the news channels and the “experts” on websites. Stocks recommended by the analysts are purchased by many, expecting to make a good return on their investment.

A countless number of people have lost a major chunk of their investment by following the advice of people they consider an authority on the subject.

The same experts cannot predict all the factors influenced by randomness. For example, no expert could predict the timing of the 2008 stock market crash, let alone the reasons that led to the crash.

2. Sports event winners

Sports events have a broadcasting event on TV before the play starts. The players, their current form and the weather conditions are discussed. During such pre-games events, the expert panel discusses many possibilities and outcomes. The audience believes their word and even share it on social media. How often do such predictions come true?

Just because a two-time world cup winner predicts that Brazil will win the next Football World Cup, doesn’t mean it will come true. Fans even place huge bets based on the opinions of the experts only to lose all their money.

The predictions of the experts are not accurate or better than anybody else’s. Their experience does help spot things you cannot, but that doesn’t guarantee the accuracy of results.

3. Avianca 52 Flight Crash

Avianca 52 disaster

Every country has a different level of respect for authority. Dutch social psychologist Geert Hofstede came up with a Power Distance Index(PDI). The PDI study indicates how well do people in a nation follow orders from an authoritative figure. View the PDI by country list here.

The higher the PDI value, the more the people respect authority.

Colombia is high up on the list and the United States is down below. Therefore, people from Colombia respect a person in authority and do not question a decision easily. A person from the United States is vocal about his thoughts because he expects his subordinates to challenge and question him.

This is exactly what happened during the Avianca 52 disaster. The person handling the clearance of aircrafts (ATC) in the airport was from the US while the copilot was from Colombia. The ATC told the co-pilot to land the flight at a nearby airport. All the copilot had to do was reply saying, “We do not have the fuel to do so. ”

However, the copilot respected authority and found it difficult to challenge the decision. The staff handling clearance expected pilots to tell him if there was an emergency. The outcome was a disaster.

5. Challenger Space Shuttle Crash

On January 28, 1968, people turned on their TV full of excitement and pride to watch the space shuttle, Challenger take off into space. 73 seconds later, the space shuttle exploded, turning into white vapor, killing all the seven crew members. The audience watching were left with horror and grief.

The reason behind the Challenger disaster was identified as a tiny elastic rubber part called as the O-ring. The elastic ring turned rigid due to the cold during the take-off which led to catastrophic consequences. The O-ring works only at a temperature of over 53 degrees while the weather reading on the day of the launch showed 36 degrees.

The surprising part was, 12 hours before the launch, the manufacturers of the O-ring had informed NASA about the risks due to lower temperatures. NASA decided that the O-ring should not pose a serious threat to the mission and the launch went as per the schedule.

There are other claims that the vulnerability of the O-ring did not reach the key people in NASA. But 12 hours was ample time to call off the event.

How the Authority Bias Effects You

Though you may not blindly follow authority, you believe the words of the experts on a day to day basis.

1. Listening to the advice of the successful

Blindly following advice

The internet is full of articles and videos of the habits of the Musks, Zuckerbergs, and Buffets. I do not mean to discredit any of them or their achievements. They are geniuses and have tasted more success than I have.

But believing that their methods will grant you success is trusting an authority figure too much. Waking up at 5 AM and taking huge risks are not the only elements that lead to success. Sure, those are good habits to cultivate but do not rely on them alone and complain when you do not achieve success.

Mark Cuban, a multi-billionaire said, if he had to start again from scratch, he could become a multi-millionaire again. But, achieving the tag of a billionaire again would depend on external factors. Malcolm Gladwell explains the concept in his book, Outliers, how different factors come together to deliver success.

Follow the advice of successful people but do not expect results to fall into your lap because you did everything exactly as told. What works for one person does not necessarily work for everyone. You will have to improvise, experiment and win.

2. Thinking your manager is right and knows what he is talking about

Listening to your boss

If you work as an employee, you have a boss to report to. Many employees consider their bosses to make better decisions than them. Even if your boss is smarter and more experienced than you, it does not mean he is right all the time.

To err is human and your boss is human. He may not make a blatant decision but he might have forgotten to consider a key element you know about.

You do not have to challenge and prove your boss wrong every single time. But when your gut-feel tells you, “That doesn’t seem right,” at least take a step back to check facts.

3. Commercials with celebrities

Celebrity commercials

Why do you think the big brands pay a cartload of money to celebrities to endorse their product? Because the Hollywood star serves as an authority figure whom you tend to believe more than a layman.

When Usain Bolt drinks a chilled Coca Cola after a sweaty run, you feel like drinking one too. If your neighbor did the same after his morning run, would you feel the same? I don’t think so.

For the same reason, any health-related products are advertised by an actor wearing a doctor’s coat. A toothpaste ad has a model with a white coat and a stethoscope. Has it occurred to you that a dentist uses a sickle probe more often than a stethoscope?

Though rarely used by a dentist, why would the toothpaste ad actor wear a stethoscope? Because it portrays authority and expertise better than any other tool of a dentist. How stupid would it look if the actor held forceps in one hand and toothpaste in the other?

4. Doctors and medicine

Doctors bias

When a doctor spots an ailment and prescribes medicine, you head to the pharmacy to buy the tablets. Little do you consider the fact that the doctor might have done the wrong diagnosis. You consider the doctor as the authority on the subject and follow the instructions.

People have faced problems due to the wrong medicine, unnecessary surgeries, and incorrect diagnosis. You cannot always take a second opinion every time you visit a doctor, but for a major condition or treatment, you should. Do not be paranoid to visit multiple doctors for simple ailments.

5. Social Media Influencers

These days social media platforms have helped people rise to celebrity status. The followers of such celebrities copy the trends and patterns of the influencers.

The trend is stronger in certain niches such as beauty and performance.

For example, several people buy the facial scrub recommended by the model who has 200k followers. Teenagers purchase the latest dress worn by a model at a photo shoot. Sports fanatics buy the shoes worn by their favorite footballers.

Celebrities receive a handsome amount of money for advertising those products. When several thousand people around the world buy the product due to the advertisement, the deal turns profitable.

Marketing strategies target such biases of your brain to boost their sales.

How to overcome the authority bias?

Compared to the other cognitive biases, the authority bias is easier to overcome.

1. Think logically

Think logically

Whenever you have to follow any instruction, think with an open mind if you are doing the right thing. If you believe you have an important opinion against the decision, bring it up.

Your voice has the potential to avert a disaster.

Do not go with an assumption that whatever your boss says holds more value than your thoughts. Hierarchy exists so that large groups of people can work together towards a unified goal.

The purpose of having a leader is not to shove ideas down people’s throats or curtail the imagination of the employees. If you push your obedience too far, you become a victim of groupthink, where the whole group simply accepts the idea of one person.

When an article on the internet tells you that a billionaire wakes up at 4 AM, stop setting your alarm right away. Your lack of sleep can create more damage than the extra hours you gain.

2. Question the person

Question the opinion

When the decision has a major impact, probe with more questions. Your questions might help the other person think in the right direction and change course.

When a doctor recommends surgery, get a second opinion. When your manager asks you to prepare a report without enough data, tell him why the effort would hold no value. When a stock market broker asks you to buy a specific stock, ask him what was the basis behind the decision.

The answers you receive will give you a fair idea of whether the decision was well thought or just a half baked idea.

A confident person will have enough facts to substantiate the reason. Moreover, more information can help you make an informed choice.

3. Assume the same recommendation to come from a person of lower authority

When Tom Cruise shows up on television with a perfume called Amouage, you think about adding the fragrance to your buying list. Now, what if your teacher advertised the same perfume?

I doubt you would ever consider buying it because a teacher recommending a perfume holds no value. Likewise, Tom Cruise recommending a perfume is no different. You must buy a fragrance that you like, not the one Tom Cruise does.

When you picture a common man recommending you the product or an action, you question the action and think straight.


Authority tends to portray credibility. It is the human way of reaching decisions quickly like many other cognitive heuristics. To overcome the authority bias, thinking plain and straight serves best.

Not everyone in authority makes the right call always. Sometimes people in authority have a bloated sense of ego which can lead to an undesired outcome. Some other leaders expect their people to voice their opinion. Unfortunately, people muffle their voices or assume that they cannot challenge their boss.

Cultivate a habit of thinking things through before jumping into actions. When you have valid point to bring up, do not hesitate to bring it up. Make sure you put across your point constructively and not just for the sake of arguing.

Sometimes, a nudge, a question or someone taking a stand is all it takes to avoid a disaster.

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