Authority bias is the tendency to attribute greater accuracy to the opinion of an authority figure (unrelated to its content) and be more influenced by that opinion. An individual is more influenced by the opinion of this authority figure, believing their views to be more credible, and hence place greater emphasis on the authority figure’s viewpoint. This concept is considered one of the so-called social cognitive biases or collective cognitive biases.
Humans generally have a deep-seated duty to authority and tend to comply when requested by an authority figure. Some scholars explain that individuals are motivated to view authority as deserving of their position and this legitimacy leads people to accept and obey the decisions that it makes. System justification theory articulates this phenomenon, particularly within its position that there is a psychological motivation for believing in the steadiness, stability and justness of the current social system.
Authority bias can be measured concerning respect for authority, where higher respect for authority positively correlates with the increased likelihood of exhibiting authority bias. Respect for authority is measured using the Respect for Authority Index (RAI), which averages responses on deference to the police. A higher score on the RAI is indicative of higher respect for authority, and hence strengthening the execution of authority bias.
Cultural differences in the strength of authority bias have been identified, in which the differences in edits made to Wikipedia articles by administrators and regular users were compared for accuracy. In Western Europe, the bias has a negligible effect. In Eastern Europe, the bias is larger and the administrator's edits are perceived as more likely to be true (despite the edits being inaccurate), indicating a cultural difference in the extent to which authority bias is experienced.
Authority bias, a term popularised by American psychologist Stanley Milgram, is defined as having an incorrectly high belief that the information verified by a person with formal authority is correct, and therefore an individual is likely to be more influenced by them. Individuals in positions of authority are seen to be treated more favourably, where people believe their views with increased certainty, though the role of authority alone is not always significant enough to directly affect decision-making without this phenomenon being used in conjunction with other heuristics and biases.
The antonym of authority bias is ‘blanket’ opposition to authority, disregarding their knowledge and believing authority figures to have inherently false claims. This relates to the view of anti-authoritarianism.
Authority bias has many explanations, rooted in the human need to obey authority figures. Namely, authority bias can be explained through evolutionary and social means.
Authority bias also has a subset, namely gender-authority bias. This subset explains the situation in which women are more likely to be subject to authority bias than males. This is evident several scenarios:
Prior to psychological research, the most common example of this phenomenon was when people obeyed Hitler during World War II, though such effects have been evident throughout history. This relates to pluralistic ignorance, in which authority figures are obeyed regardless of immorality.
The term “authority bias” was first mentioned in literature in reference to state authority bias, in which it simply indicated a preference for being pro-state or anti-state in the US federal election.
Nevertheless, the first-time authority bias was referenced in literature as a cognitive bias was a result of Milgram’s experiment, in which it was used to explain obedience to authority figures. Whilst Milgram did not directly use the term “authority bias” in his 1963 paper, the obedience effect identified from his study became the primary example of authority bias. Milgram’s findings succeeded the reason why people during World War II obeyed Hitler; participants voluntarily submitted to the authority figure (the experimenter wearing a white lab coat, signifying professionalism). Authority bias is further strengthened through the use of uniforms to signify authority, initially investigated in Milgram’s situational variable (where obedience decreased when the uniform of the experimenter was changed from a lab coat to everyday clothes), but further replicated through Bickman's infamous research into obedience, where security guards are more likely to be obeyed without question and thus contributing directly to authority bias.
Authority bias is used as a marketing strategy in order to increase the legitimacy of claims made about a product. A common example in advertising is where toothpaste companies such as Sensodyne promote the validity of their claims by ensuring the dentists wear lab coats, resulting in the consumer being more trustworthy of the product and consequently more likely to buy the product.
Personalised advertising in relation to political voting attitudes (particularly in the US election) relies on authority bias. Political campaigns are targeted specifically towards female voters (who are more susceptible to the bias), amplified through the use of social media, in which political leaders and other figures of authority are used in ad-campaigns to increase the effectiveness of their claims.
The expert halo effect is synonymous with authority bias in medicine, where the expert is seen as infallible. Issues arise in pharmaceutical settings, in which non-experts blindly follow expert's commands, resulting in the distribution of harmful drugs and inappropriate healthcare practices.
A further issue concerning the extent to which we believe an authority figure to be providing accurate information is apparent in cases such as that of Willie Jackson. Forensic dentistry falsely proved Jackson to be guilty, yet the authority bias strengthened the doctor's standpoint in a court of law as they had expert authority bias. Consequently, the negative effect of authority bias has led to wrongful convictions.
The authority bias is demonstrated in the case of the highest-paid persons' opinion (HIPPO) impact, which describes how employees and other stakeholders in the solution environment tend to go with the opinions and impressions of the highly paid people in an organization.
Evolution has established a dominance hierarchy in which it is an evolutionary advantage to obey authority figures, as figures of authority have a greater allocation of resources and other means of survival. The logical fallacy of ad verecundiam is evolutionary, highlighting that experts are more reliable due to a lack of opposing information, increasing trustworthiness.
In any society, a diverse and widely accepted system of authority allows the development of sophisticated structures for the production of resources, trade, expansion and social control. Since the opposite is anarchy, we are all trained from birth to believe that obedience to authority is right. Notions of submission and loyalty to the legitimate rule of others are accorded values in schools, the law, the military and in political systems. The strength of the bias to obey a legitimate authority figure comes from systemic socialisation practices designed to instil in people the perception that such obedience constitutes correct behaviour. Different societies vary the terms of this dimension. As we grow up, we learn that it benefits us to obey the dictates of genuine authority figures because such individuals usually possess higher degrees of knowledge, wisdom and power. As a result, authority bias can be rooted in the underlying social norms of society. Consequently, deference to authority can occur mindlessly as a kind of decision-making short cut.
Research support for the strength of authority bias is evident, however, the effect is not significant in some instances. Research is merely correlational, and hence other behavioural effects experienced in conjunction with authority bias strengthen its effects.
An individual exhibiting authority bias may also be subject to experiencing confirmation bias, which is the tendency to search for information that confirms your own existing beliefs. Research suggests that greater authority is given to financial advisors who confirm one’s existing opinions, implying that authority bias is strengthened when it coincides with confirmation bias.
The bandwagon effect is where people adopt the ideologies of those surrounding them. Society favours the opinions of authority figures, hence it is a majority view which others support.