You've heard the saying "the expert is always right," and you may have even used it to justify some of your own decisions. But what is authority bias? Why does it happen? And how can we mitigate its effects on our decision-making process? In this article, we'll explore the psychology behind authority bias and show you a few ways to keep it from negatively impacting your life.
What is Authority Bias?
People are more likely to believe something if they are told that it is coming from an expert. This can be called "authority bias."
Authority bias is the tendency to believe an authoritative person's methods, opinions, strategies, and advice without questioning them or considering facts.
People typically tend to defer to the opinion of someone who has expertise in a subject. They do this because people want answers and solutions, not questions, which seems easier for them when provided by an authority figure. Authority bias is dangerous because it creates complacency among consumers about evaluating information critically, which makes them susceptible to misinformation or even worse yet, manipulation. There are many types of authority bias, so let's take a closer look at some examples.
It is the extreme willingness of adults to go to almost any lengths on the command of an authority that constitutes the chief finding of the study. -Stanley Milgram, Influence
Real-life examples of Authority Bias
Social proof is one example of an authority bias. Social proof occurs when people assume that if others are doing something, it must be the right thing to do because "everyone else is doing it." Take selfies for instance: they're everywhere on social media and the Kardashians made it seem like a normal and positive thing to do. However, we also know that there is such a thing as "too many selfies," which can lead people down an unhealthier path for themselves.
Social proof is not always bad of course; in some circumstances, this bias helps us make good choices by showing us what others have done. For example, you want to buy a new dishwasher and research it online or ask friends about their favourite brands because the reviews from others can provide helpful information that will help you make an informed decision. In other words, social proof is not always bad if we exercise caution when assessing its validity before concluding.
Every day, people watch the market. People watch the analysts on TV and the “experts” online. Many investors buy stocks recommended by analysts, hoping to make a profit.
Many people have lost a large portion of their investment by following the advice of experts.
The same experts can't predict all random factors. For example, no one could have predicted the timing or causes of the 2008 stock market crash.
- Sports champions
Sports events have a pre-game TV broadcast. These are discussed along with the players' performances. This pre-game expert panel discusses many outcomes and possibilities. The audience believes them and even shares them online. Is it common for such prophecies to
It doesn't mean that a two-time World Cup winner's prediction will come true. Fans even place large bets based on expert advice only to lose it all.
Experts' forecasts are neither accurate nor superior to others. Their knowledge helps them see things you can't, but it doesn't guarantee results.
- Avianca 52 Flight Crash
Each country's respect for authority varies. The Power Distance Index was created by Geert Hofstede (PDI). The PDI study measures how well people in a country obey authority figures. Here is a list of PDIs.
The higher the PDI, the more authority is respected.
The United States is below Colombia on the list. Colombians respect authority and do not question decisions lightly. An American is outspoken because he expects his subordinates to challenge him.
This happened in the Avianca 52 disaster. The ATC (air traffic control) person was from the US, while the copilot was from Colombia. ATC instructed the co-pilot to land at a nearby airport. “We don't have the fuel,” the copilot replied.
But the copilot deferred to authority and found it difficult to disagree. The clearance staff expected pilots to alert him to an emergency. It was a flop.
- Challenger Shuttle Crashes
On January 28, 1968, people gathered around their TVs to watch the Challenger launch into space. 73 seconds later, the shuttle exploded, killing all seven crew members. The viewers were filled with horror and grief.
The O-ring was found to be the cause of the Challenger disaster. The cold made the elastic ring rigid during takeoff, resulting in catastrophic consequences. The O-ring only works at temperatures over 53 degrees, and the day of the launch was 36 degrees.
Surprisingly, the O-ring manufacturers had warned NASA about the risks of lower temperatures 12 hours before launch. NASA determined that the O-ring would not jeopardize the mission, and the launch proceeded as planned.
Others claim NASA's top brass was unaware of the O-vulnerability. ring's But 12 hours was enough time to cancel.
Authority bias can also occur when people feel obligated to follow the advice of others because they are viewed as authority figures. When we defer judgment to someone who is an expert or has more power than us—such as parents, teachers, and bosses—it's called "legitimate" authority.
For example, older generations tend to be influenced by their doctors. They trust doctors because their doctor is an expert and they are older, so this makes them legitimate authorities on health. However, just because someone is of a certain age doesn't necessarily mean that person knows everything about being healthy. This would be another example of "non-legitimate" authority since the person does not have any specific expertise in the subject.
How Does Authority Bias Develop?
So, what causes these biases in the first place? Well, it starts with trust and safety concerns for one's self. When we are unsure about something or concerned that our choices might be wrong, deferring to someone who has more knowledge than us seems like a safe solution—and if they have authority over us, we naturally trust them.
What can happen if people blindly accept what someone else says? For one thing, some experts may not always be correct in their assessments and recommendations—but you wouldn't know that unless you did your research to compare their claims with others' expertise. It's also easy for the media to skew the opinions of "experts" for their purposes.
There are plenty of cases where people have been misled by non-legitimate authorities such as the famous case involving Dr. Oz and his claims that green coffee bean extract can help you lose weight quickly, which was later discredited by Harvard scientists' research. However, this message had already reached millions of viewers before the truth came out.
In another example, a child is given a toy by their older brother and they assume that since he's bigger and older than them, everything he says must be true. Of course, this isn't always going to end well if brothers can't keep secrets or are prone to teasing younger siblings!
Lack of awareness about these biases is another factor that can contribute to the development of authority bias. If people are unaware they're being influenced by others' opinions, it's easier for someone else to use this hidden influence against them without their knowledge.
It's Simple to Fake Authority
One of the main points about authority bias is that it's extremely easy to fake.
Simply having the appearance of authority is enough to elicit an automatic response in our brains. Things like titles, clothing, and symbols are simple to forge.
When you see someone in a position of authority, it's natural to trust them. But this trust is misplaced because there are plenty of people who can easily fake the appearance of authority. The reality is that just because someone has an authoritative title doesn't mean they're capable or knowledgeable about what they're talking about.
Con artists take advantage of this. They dress in clothes and symbols that give them authority and power. The con man is a wealthy businessman one minute, a stern lawyer the next, and finally a wise doctor.
Next time you're watching a show with a con, pay attention to how the characters use authority bias to get what they want.
Authority bias occurs when people assume that those with more power know better than those without and put too much faith in their expertise. However, this assumption isn't always warranted due to the ease with which one can create false credentials for themselves (e.g., buying medical degrees online). This means that even if someone seems like a paper expert, you should be wary until proven otherwise since many "experts" are just posers.
In light of this, it's important to question authority and not just take what people say at face value or automatically assume that because someone is in a position of power they know better than you do. Just because someone has an official-sounding title doesn't mean they're capable or qualified for their job; instead, you should always think critically and form your own opinions about what you're being told rather than simply accepting the word of someone in authority.
Authority bias can lead to several harmful consequences, both for individuals and society as a whole. For example, people often ignore their gut feelings about whether or not they should trust something because an "expert" told them it was true. This can lead to people being taken advantage of by con artists who exploit the misplaced trust in authority figures for their gain.
Authority bias is a notable problem given that so many powerful organizations are widely believed despite having no evidence to support what they're saying, such as politicians and pharmaceutical companies. It's also largely responsible for the continued discrimination of minorities despite it being widely known that there are no innate biological differences between groups.
This highlights why authority bias is so harmful because many people in positions of power abuse their influence to further their interests rather than working towards what's best for society. Instead, it's important to be skeptical and question everything you're told until you can confirm it with your own eyes and ears.
What Can You Do?
Another reason authority bias is so strong is that you don't realize how much you're influenced by it daily basis. As a result, it's both powerful and unexpected.
If you tend towards believing everything an expert says or deferring to someone who is in a position of authority, you might want to start asking yourself some questions first.
- Is this authority figure an expert in this field?
- What effect do incentives have on the accuracy of an expert's opinion?
- Do the claims seem reasonable from what I know about this topic?
- If it's something completely different from my area of expertise, do they sound credible and trustworthy based on their past actions or experiences?
It can help to research more online or talk to someone else in the same situation. You could even consider asking them for their advice before making a final decision—that way, you can take advantage of multiple opinions or points of view without giving up control entirely.
Other experts may be bribed to persuade you to follow their advice, such as doctors who prescribe pharmaceutical drugs in exchange for a cut of the sale.
You'll have a hard time stopping once you start seeing the world through the lens of authority bias.
Begin right now.
The bottom line is that deferring judgment to others isn't always bad if it's done with caution and careful consideration. However, you should always try to get information from a variety of sources and use your knowledge as well—that way, even if the authority figure is incorrect about something, there's still a good chance that what they say will be useful.
Credibility comes with authority. It is a cognitive heuristic, like many others. To overcome the authority bias, think clearly.
No one in power always makes the right call. The ego of those in power can sometimes lead to undesirable outcomes. Other leaders expect their followers to speak up. Many people either mute their voices or assume they cannot confront their boss.
Develop the habit of thinking things through before acting. If you have a valid point to make, make it. Make sure you argue constructively, not just to argue.
A gentle nudge, a question, or a firm stand can often prevent a disaster.
With this in mind, it seems like having an open mindset with plenty of curiosity can help people avoid the negative effects of authority bias—after all, you can't become a better critical thinker if you aren't willing to consider other people's opinions!