Authority Bias

[Last Updated January 21st 2024]
Authority bias reflects our greater likelihood to trust and/or be influenced by those who we perceive as authority figures. This is most salient when the authority is related to the information we are consuming, or when the information comes from someone that is well respected. For example, Radocy (1976) had undergraduate music majors listen to and rate two musical performances, and found that authority figures could influence preference by providing various types of “bogus” information. This suggests at some level, students trusted that the information provided to them was accurate because it came from an experimenter, and then subsequently relied on it when assessing the music (whether consciously or not). It is also possible however that this reflects the experimenter effect, where participants consciously or subconsciously make decisions that they believe the experimenter wants them to make (which also represents a form of authority bias). A similar study by Kreimer (2016) had students read quotes and rate their agreement with them on a scale from one to ten. Students who saw the quotes with an attribution to their famous author (e.g. Ghandi, Einstein, Plato) were more likely to agree with them than students who saw them as an anonymous quote without an attribution. In this study, a quote attributed to Einstein (“Life is like riding a bicycle. To keep your balance, you must keep moving”) elicited double the average rating when his name was attached to it. A potential real-life example of the influence of authority on decision making occurred during the COVID-19 pandemic, when French microbiologist Didier Raoult put forward hydroxychloroquine as a treatment for COVID based on a single study that had yet to be peer reviewed and had methodological problems. This was considered to be extremely controversial at the time, and a number of studies have since found that hydroxychloroquine does not help treat COVID (e.g. Horby et al., 2020). Branch et al. (2022) examined various reputational cues that led to widespread trust in Didier Raoult, a single individual, in the face of significant criticism from the rest of the scientific community. These include reputational considerations such as status (he was the founder of a hospital institute with 800+ employees), intellectual authority (via intellectual charisma and aesthetics representing a guru), influence/popularity from his social media account, a visit from the French president, and general beliefs about science’s responsibilities and role in the COVID pandemic. Through this analysis, Branch et al. (2022) demonstrate the complexity of how we judge authority using various cues, which in turn may help you choose what authority figures to rely on if attempting to leverage authority bias in marketing strategy. An additional important consideration is that when individuals need to make decisions in ambiguous situations, they often assume that others who are making decisions around them have expertise that they lack (especially if those others are confident in their decisions). This consideration can be seen in Asch’s (1951; 1955; 1956) line experiments that we discuss in detail on our social proof page, described as informational social influence. Thus, ambiguous situations that involve witnessing other’s decision making choices can lead to assumptions about their expertise and subsequent use of their choices in personal decision making.

In addition to trust and influence on decision making, the authority bias can also potentially lead to obedience. This isn’t necessarily relevant to marketing, but rather helps emphasize the power of the heuristic. One of the most famous and unethical psychological experiments of all time was carried out in the 1960s by Stanely Milgram (1963). In this experiment, Milgram (1963) relied on three subjects, a participant, a confederate playing a victim, and the experimenter. After a rigged random selection, the participant sat in front of a shock generator that had 30 labelled switches ranging from “Slight Shock” to “Danger: Severe Shock” and then followed by two switches labelled “XXX.” The switches also had their voltage labelled from 15 to 450 in increments of 15. The participant was told that the experiment was designed to examine the effects of punishment on memory and overheard the experimenter tell the victim that the shocks would not cause permanent physical harm. They were then given a shock to show them how the machine works/feels at 45 volts (the third switch) and convince them that the machine was real. As the experiment progressed and the victim failed their task, the participant was ordered to shock them at increasing increments of 15 volts. Once the shocks reached 300 and 315 volts, the victim pounded on the wall, and then no longer answered questions. However, the experimenter continued to order the participant to shock them at increasingly higher intervals whenever they failed to answer a question. After 315 volts, the victim stayed silent. 26 of 40 participants continued to shock the victim up to the maximum amount (450 volts with the label XXX). Only 5 of the 40 participants stopped at 300 volts (the first wall pound followed by no answer) and another 4 stopped at 315 volts (the second wall pound). Further, many of the participants showed physical signs of anxiety and discomfort such as trembling or digging their nails into their skin. Milgram (1963) concluded that the study demonstrated the strength of obedience to an authority figure. In a follow-up study, Milgram (1965) had the victim protest even more, demanding to be let out at 150 volts, crying out about the pain at 180 volts, and refusing to provide answers at 300 volts while demanding to be freed from the chair he was pretending to be strapped down to. Further, Milgram (1965) also looked at proximity between the participant and the victim, with one condition having both in the same room 1.5 feet away from one another, and another conditions having the participant force the victims hand onto a shock plate even when he refused to continue. In the condition where the victim was in another room but asking to be let go, only 37.5% of participants stopped before the end. However, once they were within 1.5 feet of the victim, 60% stopped before the end. And if forced to put their hand on the shock plate, 70% stopped before the end. Milgram (1965) also ran a set of experiments that manipulated how far away the experimenter was from the participant, and found that obedience with the experimenter in the room was around three times higher than if the experimenter communicated instructions by phone. A more recent re-analysis of these experiments by Haslam et al. (2014) provides a more in-depth understanding of the factors involved in obedience, for those who are interested. Further, a review of replication studies by Blass (1999) suggests that results remained robust across time and culture.

Using Authority Bias in Marketing

There are two key ways to leverage the authority bias in your marketing campaigns. The first involves appeals to authority figures or experts from outside of your business. The most obvious choice here is experts in your field, preferably with fancy titles. For example, if you sell medical products, an endorsement from a doctor would be beneficial. And the more titles that doctor has, the more they will seem like an expert. Similarly, you can leverage well known companies or corporations, and frame them as experts providing an endorsement. For example, you will see many businesses list companies that have used their service on their website, with logos from well-known businesses like Google and Microsoft. The trick here is that only one or two employees at these companies may have used the service. But listing them makes it look like top management from these companies (assumed to be experts in their field) endorse the service. You can also leverage reviews from third-party critics and reviewers, which communicates that non-affiliated experts support your product/service. To accomplish this, it’s important to reach out to reviewers and send them free products/services prior to launch for testing purposes, assuming you are confident that your product/service will elicit a positive experience. This is especially important in industries where customers are unfamiliar with the technical aspects of your product/service, which can range from mundane products like bedsheets to technical products like laptops. If you think that customers might look up third-party information on your product/service, you want to leverage this form of expertise as early as possible to ensure that positive reviews appear at the top of any Google search results. You can also appeal to expertise through well known influencers who appear to be experts. This is especially important in social media oriented industries like fashion and beauty, where customers over-rely on influencer opinions of products. Sponsorships are helpful here as many customers don’t differentiate between an influencer’s normal content and their sponsored content, even when the sponsored content is clearly labelled. Aside from influencers, a lot of customers look to the rich as a knowledgeable authority figure, with the assumption that since they are wealthy, they must make good decisions. Thus, associating your brand with wealthy customers can leverage the authority bias. However, this can be a double-edged sword if these individuals are controversial. Positive news/media can also act as an authoritative endorsement, as people tend to assume that the news only provides accurate information. Many companies leverage this by reaching out to morning shows who need to find a new interesting product or story on a daily basis. If you attempt to do this, make sure you frame your product/service in an interesting narrative. For example, if your product/service is associated somehow with a heartwarming story about family, it will have a better chance of being picked up by the news. In addition to legitimate news and media, a great source of authority comes from sponsored content in the form of news articles. Amazeen and Wojdynski (2019) found that fewer than 1 in 10 American adults in their experiment were able to recognize that a news article they read was an advertisement even though it was labelled as sponsored content. Thus, many individuals are likely to read sponsored content and infer it is an expert opinion, without recognizing it is an advertisement. Keep in mind that this is somewhat unethical. But since it’s legal and widely used, it may be necessary to stay competitive with other companies taking advantage of it.

The second way to leverage the authority bias is by setting your business or its owners/managers/team members up as experts. This can be done through blog posts, YouTube videos, online courses, published books, white papers, hosted events, speaking opportunities, social media posts, industry-specific social media pages/groups, media interviews, etc. This is especially important for startups and new businesses that lack any real brand recognition, as it helps create confidence in the product/service that you are offering. We want to emphasize just how important this is. Many startups believe that customers will just assume they are experts, but the reality is that potential customers are often very skeptical of new businesses as the world (especially online) is full of scams and inferior products/services. Expertise demonstrates that your business is legitimate and run by someone who understands the industry, and hopefully understands the customer’s needs or pain points. Just keep in mind that this likely requires human-written content for any highly technical or niche industry, as AI written content is often obvious to industry insiders due to errors or over-simplification.

Practical Examples of Authority Bias

Using Expert Recommendations as Authority

If you’ve ever seen toothpaste commercials you have probably heard the phrase “number one recommended by dentists” or “9 out of 10 dentists recommend” but you likely have no idea who came up with those statistics or how. And most people never bother to question it, because when it’s part of a commercial from a large brand, there is an assumption that they wouldn’t lie. These statistics aren’t always from neutral third parties however. Sometimes they come from brand-sponsored industry groups. Other times, advertisers cherry pick the statistics they report. For example, there might be four independent websites that rate keyboards, with only one claiming keyboard-X is the best. Yet in an advertisement, keyboard-X might be described as “rated best keyboard in 2023.” Often times advertisements can be misleading to the point of being unethical. For example, a reviewer (an authority figure) might claim a video game is “a poorly designed game which is not worth playing, but has some potentially great fights that are held back by a terrible control system” and the advertisement for the game might cite that reviewer as saying “great fights” leaving out the rest of the context. As many consumers completely ignore context, citing expert recommendations is often an easy way to help establish your brand and advertise your product/service. Rather than cherry pick data, or mispresent authorities/experts, you can use copy in a creative way to accurately communicate expertise. For example, if you sell medical products to veterinarians and you have many clients in Ontario, you can say something like “Used by vets all across Ontario.” This would be a true and accurate statement, and would communicate that many experts use your products, without relying on misleading data. Similarly, if you run a decades-old pastry shop you can say things like “loved by Toronto since 1984” or “making children smile for over a decade.” Both these statements could be considered accurate and not misleading, but at the same time communicate an informational social norm. By using these strategies, you provide social proof that leverages the authority bias. The one key thing to remember here is that you want your expert/authority to be relevant to your industry in some way, even if indirectly. For example, if selling medicine, doctors would make great experts. But individuals who take the medicine may also be viewed as experts in certain contexts as they have direct experience using it. Thus, you might use doctors to legitimize the medical benefits of the medicine, and then use individuals who have taken the medicine to communicate the emotional benefits from taking it (e.g. feeling less pain and getting to spend more time with family).

Using Website Imagery to Invoke Authority

Sometimes the images you use on a website alone can communicate authority and expertise. For example, if you are selling science-oriented products or services, having pictures of people in a labcoat or doing experiments (or both) in above-the-fold content can help communicate both your industry expertise and authority. Alternatively, having a section on any homepage that discusses expert opinions in respect to your product/service with an image of an expert from that industry can help. For example, if you sell construction equipment, having a picture of someone in a suit and hardhat with some technical expert-related information next to it can go far in respect to generating trust and belief that your products/services are high quality. Alternatively, some industries can benefit from pictures of celebrity or influencer experts. For example, if selling cookware, simply having a picture of a celebrity chef using the cookware can be enough to benefit from the authority bias, as customers will make assumptions about endorsements even without related copy. All of this involves proper priming and framing. And it’s important that the visitors to your website are already familiar with your industry and related experts, otherwise expert-related pictures will create confusion or seem out of place.

Generating Authority Through Prescriptions and Directives

As the authority bias can lead to obedience, marketers in some industries can use authority figures and experts to prescribe products/services (like drugs or mental health programs), or direct their clients to purchase products/services (like a personal trainer directing a client to buy specific exercise equipment). In this situation, rather than focusing too much on advertising to the public, you can focus on convincing experts/authorities of the benefits of your product/service and provide them with incentives to help you sell them. This is relatively common in the drug and medical devices industries where companies spend millions paying doctors for speaking fees, buying them fancy gifts, and taking them out to dinner. For example in the United States, ProPublica (Ornstein et al., 2019) found that between the years 2015 and 2019, over 2500 doctors in the US had received over half a million dollars from drug and medical device companies, with over two billion dollars per year in payments and gifts sent to doctors. Similarly in Canada, 151 million dollars were sent from big pharma to doctors and hospitals between 2017 and 2018, without any record as to why (Russell & Lieberman, 2019). This focus on incentivizing authorities seems to work, as a study on physicians in Massachusetts found that for every $1000 spent on payments to doctors (most commonly on meals), the rate of prescription for an associated brand name drug went up by 0.1% (Yeh et al., 2016). Similarly, a review of 29 studies between 1994 and 2000 found that drug-company sponsored continuing education and events (often including travel expenses) increased prescription rates of the sponsor’s drugs (Wazana, 2000). Like very much of the authority-related marketing strategies, this comes off as somewhat unethical, and has been linked to the opioid crisis (Hollander et al., 2020; Marks, 2020). However, you can use a similar strategy without crossing ethical boundaries. There are many industries where a teacher or mentor suggests products or services to those they are working with. For example, personal trainers or physical therapists might suggest specific exercise gear/equipment, health coaches may suggest (or require the use of) specific health tracking apps, sports professionals might suggest specific brands of gear, professors require students to purchase specific textbooks, etc. In industries like these, you can focus your marketing directly towards the experts and mentors, attempting to convince them that your product/service is superior to others. The use of reciprocity is key here, as it’s a useful way to develop brand loyalty. For example, much like with drug companies, you can pay for these experts to attend events, take them to dinners, provide them with community and career support, etc. This can be beneficial to both the expert and those they suggest products to, as you can create a direct line of communication with experts to help them optimize the usage of your products/services and address any quality concerns at a personal level.

Works Cited

Amazeen, M. A., & Wojdynski, B. W. (2019). Reducing native advertising deception: Revisiting the antecedents and consequences of persuasion knowledge in digital news contexts. Mass Communication & Society, 22(2), 222-247.

Asch, S. E. (1951). Effects of group pressure upon the modification and distortion of judgments. In H. Guetzkow (Ed.), Groups, leadership and men; research in human relations (pp. 177-190). Carnegie Press.

Asch, S. E. (1955). Opinions and social pressure. Scientific American, 193(5), 31-35.

Asch, S. E. (1956). Studies of independence and conformity: I. A minority of one against a unanimous majority. Psychological Monographs: General and Applied, 70(9), 1-70.

Blass, T. (1999). The Milgram paradigm after 35 years: Some things we now know about obedience to authority. Journal of Applied Social Psychology, 29(5), 955-978.

Branch, T. Y., Origgi, G., & Morisseau, T. (2022). Why trust Raoult? How social indicators inform the reputations of experts. Social Epistemology, 36(3), 299-316.

Haslam, N., Loughnan, S., & Perry G. (2014). Meta-Milgram: An empirical synthesis of the obedience experiments. PLoS ONE 9(4), e93927.

Hollander, M. A. G., Donohue, J. M., Stein, B. D., Krans, E. E., & Jarlenski, M. P. (2020). Association between opioid prescribing in medicare and pharmaceutical company gifts by physician specialty. Journal of General Internal Medicine, 35(8), 2451-2458.

Horby, P., Mafham, M., Linsell, L., Bell, J. L., Staplin, N., Emberson, J. R., Wiselka, M., Ustianowski, A., Elmahi, E., Prudon, B., Whitehouse, T., Felton, T., Williams, J., Faccenda, J., Underwood, J., Baillie, J. K., Chappell, L. C., Faust, S. N., Jaki, T., … Landray, M. J. (2020). Effect of hydroxychloroquine in hospitalized patients with Covid-19. The New England Journal of Medicine, 383(21), 2030–2040.

Kreimer, R. (2016). The impact of authority figures in our beliefs experimental studies on the “author’s bias.” Journal of Humanities Therapy, 7(2), 1-16.

Marks, J. H. (2020). Lessons from corporate influence in the opioid epidemic: Toward a norm of separation. Journal of Bioethical Inquiry, 17(2), 173-189. Milgram, S. (1963). Behavioral study of obedience. The Journal of Abnormal and Social Psychology, 67(4), 371-378.

Milgram, S. (1965). Some conditions of obedience and disobedience to authority. Human Relations, 18(1), 57-76.

Ornstein, C., Weber, T., & Grochowski, G. (2019, October 17). We found over 700 doctors who were paid more than a million dollars by drug and medical device companies. ProPublica.

Radocy, R. E. (1976). Effects of authority figure biases on changing judgments of musical events. Journal of Research in Music Education, 24(3), 119-128. Russell, A., & Lieberman, C. (2019, August 19). Big pharma paid $151M to doctors, hospitals in 2017-18, but we don’t know who got paid or why. Global News.

Wazana, Y, (2020). Physicians and the pharmaceutical industry: Is a gift ever just a gift? JAMA: The Journal of the American Medical Association, 283(3), 373-380.

Yeh, J. S., Franklin, J. M., & Avorn, J. (2016). Association of industry payments to physicians with the prescribing of brand-name statins in Massachusetts. JAMA Internal Medicine, 176(6), 763-768.

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