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Tools for Reasoning: Authority bias


Have you ever found yourself cursing over a stupid decision that you knew was not the best one, but you did it anyway because an “authority figure” in your life such as your mom, teacher, father or older brother told you you should? How could you say no to the mighty voice of experience, right?

“As to the wise man, we shall see. What concerns you and me, who are still a great distance from the wise man, is to ensure that we do not fall into a state of affairs which is disturbed, powerless, subservient to another and worthless to oneself.” Seneca 

Don’t follow someone just because he or she is an authority or anything else. What served him might not serve you, taking circumstances and many others into account. This is the authority bias, which consists of making decisions basing your reasoning on authority alone, like a robot, not taking account of your specific situation or other factors that would make up for better reasoning and a more informed decision. 

It’s impressive how it is so annoyingly common to find yourself on your 30’s or 40’s wanting to change your career because, at the moment of choosing it, you went with the voice of “experience” without listening to yours, the person that would find himself doing it for the next 40 years. 

This is one of the consequences of the authority bias. In Stoicism, I picture Epictetus telling you, that more than authority bias, it’s more the “being a slave to other people reasoning bias”. Now, one thing is to choose a career path not suitable for yourself, but another paramountly different is to kill thousands of people just because you were told to, as happened in Germany during WWII or in Vietnam. This lures you to think: How harmless really is it to let other people do your thinking, however small the decision?

The obedience experiments. 

Stanley Milgram proved how weak our will becomes when we find ourselves in an authoritative situation with his famous “Shock experiment” at Yale University. You can find more about it here or watch the movie on Netflix if you prefer. 

In the experiment, Milgram tricked people into thinking that they were going to participate in an experiment that measured people’s ability to learn for the fear of being punished, while in reality, he was measuring their compliance to authority. They were told that they were needed to administer shocks to a person in another room (an actor) if they got the answer wrong, and subsequently, raise the volts (45–100–100–200) administered with each wrong answer. The actor got them wrong on purpose and at the same time started yelling that he was in pain and wanted the experiment to stop when the shocks got high enough. The authority figure was a doctor (actor as well) in a coat that gave orders such as:

Prod 1: Please continue.

Prod 2: The experiment requires you to continue.

Prod 3: It is absolutely essential that you continue.

Prod 4: You have no other choice but to continue.

Note that the subjects of the experiment were allowed to leave at any moment but do to the context, most didn’t and the majority gave the “learner” painful shocks until required to. This was no doubt a dark experiment with even darker implications. 

How often do you comply without even thinking about it? Without even knowing that you find yourself in an authoritative situation? 

Back to us and normal life. If you have ever taken a decision that proved to be wrong just because someone you deemed capable and admirable told you to do so and then went on and did it, and then fucked up. You know what I’m talking about and you know how much it sucks. 

So now that you know the bias. Be smarter. I’m not claiming that you don’t have to hear the opinion of an expert, that would be stupid and would just be another bias, but you have to be able to take everything else into account as well. Such as your situation and the interests embedded in your choice. Ask yourself, who is ultimately affected by my decision and how? Once that is done, challenge authority and question them. 

Be free. 

Until next time, 

Ricardo 

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