Don’t fall for the authority bias

EVER wonder why it is a man in a white coat that is recommending you a certain brand of toothpaste? 

Some ads even throw in a stethoscope for good measure. As if a dentist would ever use one! 

But the stethoscope helps to create the aura of authority. Advertising gladly makes use of the ability of authority figures to tell you what to buy.

The most famous example of the authority bias is the Milgram experiment done in 1961, in the United States. 

People were asked by a doctor in a white coat to give patients electric shocks by turning a dial. They were told the goal of the experiment was to see how the shock would impact memory. 

But the patients were actors and did not really get a shock, but faked the pain. The people being asked to turn the dial were the real experiment! 

Regardless of pain, 50% of people turned the dial up, all the way to a lethal 450 volt shock, when they were urged by the “doctor” to do so, even while they could hear the “patients” scream in pain. 

The experiment showed that many people would go much further than they would have imagined, if an authority figure would tell them to do so.

In another example a pilot and co-pilot would sit together in a flight simulator and the pilot would set a course that would very obviously lead to a crash. 

In 25% of the cases, the co-pilot did nothing to correct the course, as he did not want to interfere with the much higher authority of the pilot!

It makes sense to listen to your dentist when he gives you dental advice, but don’t pay special attention to his investment tips! 

Remember that authority typically only applies to a narrow field. 

For example, it doesn’t make sense to invoke a quote from Einstein on religion, as his expertise was in physics! 

Always look at the strength of the argument, not the person behind it.

Whenever some authority makes a statement - especially in commercials - consider:

* Is it a real authority? The “doctors” and “dentists’” and even “housewives” in commercials are paid actors.

* If it is a real authority, is the statement about the topic the authority has actual expertise in? Bruce Willis might be an expert in action movies, but why would I believe him when he recommends a certain brand of whiskey?

* Would the authority have a (commercial) interest saying something? All the actresses that advertise perfumes are handsomely paid, which undermines their credibility.

Gather the opinion of multiple experts, to see if they are consistent. Dig deeper when they vary wildly.

And always: think for yourself.

Mark Reijman is co-founder and managing director of, dedicated to increasing financial literacy and to help you save time and money by comparing all credit cards, loans and broadband plans in Malaysia.

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