The Origin Of Authority Bias
Reading Time: 5 minutes
Authority bias is a cognitive bias that influences us to put extreme trust in people in positions of power. But when did we start experiencing the authority bias?

When did we start to trust people in positions of power?

I recently talked about how both new writers and your favorite writers are leaving Medium. Your favorite writers are leaving because the algorithm is not in their favor and their earnings have dropped.

If Medium is the only source of income they have then leaving is the right thing to do.

But new writers are leaving because their favorite writers are saying they are leaving. This makes no sense. Don’t base your actions on someone else’s reasoning. The reason they are leaving has nothing to do with you. But if you want to leave — go! No one is stopping you.

But remember if you are leaving because someone with a high following and a pseudo higher social status is leaving then you are falling for authority bias.

The Power of Authority Bias: Why We Give Power to People Who Don’t Deserve It

Authority bias is the tendency for people to defer to people with perceived authority, regardless of the content of their arguments. When we see people in positions of authority or people who have titles we assume are powerful, we instinctively trust their opinions and make decisions based on their thoughts. This is problematic because we’re often too quick to assume that people in positions of authority have valid arguments and worthy opinions.

Authority bias is one of the most fundamental and pervasive of all biases. It’s so ingrained in us that we don’t even notice it happening.

Authority bias influences us to believe and put our trust in people in positions of power and leadership. Our thoughts on leadership, business, religion, and unfortunately where we show our work online are all influenced by authority bias.

The Problem With Authority Bias

Authority bias is a lot like groupthink. When a group of people become so embedded in a shared, mostly false belief that they ignore contradictory evidence, they become vulnerable to persuasion by a charismatic individual. Similarly, when we believe the opinion of someone with authority, we ignore arguments that don’t accord with our beliefs.

It can be especially dangerous to do so because we can lose sight of the truth and overlook the most reasonable and convincing options. As we have seen, the power of authority is so great that the person with the title of authority tends to get all the respect and deference they deserve. This causes people to go out of their way to defer to them, not only in the marketplace but in other aspects of their lives.

Milgram Experiment

Rather than going in-depth on what authority bias is and how we can stop ourselves from falling to this bias. I want to ask a deeper question. When did we start to experience authority bias?

Because we can go back in history and see how this bias has evolved over time.

We can start with an experiment performed in 1961 by Stanley Milgram. Milgram’s test is one of the most notable experiments explaining the authority bias.

Milgram’s experiment had three people — an authority, a student, and a teacher. The teacher was told to give fake electric shocks to the student when they made a mistake by the authority. The shocks were fake but the teacher didn’t know.

And every time the student made a mistake the amount of the electric shock would increase. The student would start to yell and beg for help the higher the shocks got.

The experiment didn’t end until the highest amount of electrical shock could be given and anytime the teacher asked questions about the experiment the authority told them they had to keep giving the shocks and complete the experiment.

Milgram’s experiment suggests that we tend to comply when an authority tells us what to do.

You think you’re different? 

And say you wouldn’t keep going.

Think again.

You fall victim to authority bias every day.

Consider your relationship with your boss. When your boss tells you to do something you do, no matter what you think about it — you do.

Sure you can say no but what consequences will you face when you say no?

You even use the authority you have in your relationships. You tell your kids to do things not because they aren’t good for them. But because you’re their parent.

Imagine this scenario:

You’re at the dinner table and your child won’t eat their food. You use several psychological strategies you picked up like making a deal for more TV or ice cream. When that falls you try to withhold stuff from them, telling them they can’t watch TV or you’ll take away their toys. When those strategies fail you then you typically turn to saying do this because I’m your parent and I’m telling you to do this.

Now your child has to decide what to do. The end of this process is your child doing what you said.

This tells us that we follow authority, and we use our authority to get people to do what we want.

But it doesn’t answer our core question. When did we start to experience authority bias?

For that, we need to look further back in time and understand that authority bias is an outcome of our evolution.

In the past when our ancestors lived in small groups it was important for them to listen and follow the authority — their tribal leaders. Their survival depended on it. If they listened and followed orders they would live. When they didn’t they would either be killed or put out of the tribe to fight for survival on their own. So following the leader was a matter of life or death for them.

It was socially acceptable to follow orders. That habit of trusting leaders has been ingrained in us. It is something that was passed down in our genetics whether you know it or not.

I’m not saying don’t follow orders. What I am saying is we have a habit of following orders because we think they mean life or death.

We think the people telling us what to do know more than we do and will keep us safe. Sometimes they do know more and do keep us safe so overall it is in our best interest to follow orders.

But is following the ways of popular writers on Medium make or break for you?

We need to be aware of who we listen to and follow specifically on the internet when experts and authorities pop up overnight.

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