The 25 Cognitive Biases: Authority Bias

This article is an excerpt from the Shortform book guide to "Poor Charlie's Almanack" by Charles T. Munger. Shortform has the world's best summaries and analyses of books you should be reading.

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What is authority bias? How do you control the impact of the tendency?

Áuthority bias is the tendency to blindly obey and adhere to the beliefs and instructions of authority figures. This tendency makes us vulnerable to manipulation by bad leaders. You can control the effect of this cognitive tendency by being careful when appointing leaders and taking time to verify the soundness of the decision of an authority figure.

Read on to learn more about authority bias.

What It Is

Man was born mostly to follow leaders, with only a few people doing the leading.

Hierarchies in society arise that support this tendency.

People tend to follow instructions from authority, even blindly.

Why It Evolved

Authority bias evolved because obeying authority and a strict hierarchy may improve social cohesion, which in turn improves survival. A few orders given from the top, if followed by everyone, may be better for society.

Well-chosen authorities may be good exemplars for behavior. The crowd’s replicating the habits of the powerful or successful may improve survival.

How It Can Be Harmful

Authority bias is harmful because it limits the individual’s decision-making, which is bad when the leader is wrong, or when the leader’s ideas are misunderstood.

Authority bias is amplified by:

  • Stress influence: Confusing situations like emergencies or economic recessions increase obedience to the leader’s guidance.
  • Doubt avoidance: Being in doubt is stressful; following a leader’s orders blindly is easier.
  • Social proof: When a few people start following a leader, the rest flock to the crowd.
  • Contrast misreaction: Small gradual changes in an authority’s orders can cause a drastic deviation in behavior over time.

Examples of Authority Bias

The famous Milgram experiment showed the tendency of people to obey authorities. The setup: the subject is assigned the role of a teacher; his role is to administer shocks to a learner when the learner makes mistakes. The voltage is increased with each mistake, ending at levels that would cause serious damage or death. (In reality, no shocks were given; pre-recorded messages of pain were played at different shock levels.) If the subject demurred from giving shocks, the experimenter would step through four statements in order:

  • Please continue.
  • The experiment requires that you continue.
  • It is absolutely essential that you continue.
  • You have no other choice; you must go on.

If the subject refused to go on after these four statements, the experiment would end. The majority of people didn’t get this far; they delivered a final 450-volt shock three times. (Shortform note: Read more about the Milgram experiment here.)

Outside of the laboratory, the same effect has real-world consequences:

  • Hitler led a nation of believing Christians into supporting genocide.
  • Many CEOs remain in control of companies far longer than they should.
  • (Shortform example: In 2014, a South Korean ferry capsized. The captain asked the passengers to stay in their cabins and await further orders, which never came. While the captain escaped, 300 passengers (mainly high school students) died.)

Antidotes

You can manage authority bias by being careful about who you appoint to power. This figure will be hard to remove, since people listen to authority.

As usual, in a stressful situation, control your reflexive reactions, follow a checklist, and verify the leader’s judgment is sound before making a decision.

If you default to thinking, “well this (policeman, professor, manager, president) couldn’t possibly be wrong,” examine your thinking. Come from the perspective that all people universally have biases, and authority figures may at times be less reliable than your personal thinking.

Authority Bias: How Leaders Gain Blind Trust

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  • A collection of Charlie Munger’s best advice given over 30 years
  • Why you need to know what you’re good at and what you’re bad at to make decisions
  • Descriptions of the 25 psychological biases that distort how you see the world

Joseph Adebisi

Joseph has had a lifelong obsession with reading and acquiring new knowledge. He reads and writes for a living, and reads some more when he is supposedly taking a break from work. The first literature he read as a kid were Shakespeare's plays. Not surprisingly, he barely understood any of it. His favorite fiction authors are Tom Clancy, Ted Bell, and John Grisham. His preferred non-fiction genres are history, philosophy, business & economics, and instructional guides.

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