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HERO Skills Challenge: Breaking Bad Bias - The Authority Bias

Gather 'round, citizens of Earth, for a tale that rockets us into the cosmos of cognitive bias, where any one of us, at any given time, can be led astray by the gravitational pull of authority. Our story today stars Senator Stern, a figure as seasoned in the political arena as he is novice in the universe of space science. At a bustling town hall, with the brush of election season painting every word, the Senator boldly proclaims, "Why continue to pour billions into NASA? With so many earthly concerns, surely this is folly!" Mindless nods ripple through the crowd, a wave of agreement energized not by fact, but by the perceived authority of the speaker.


Here’s where we should pause and pivot our attention towards the countless innovations born from NASA's lofty endeavors. This is no mere odyssey of exploration; it's a journey that has woven the fabric of our daily lives with threads of ingenuity. For starters, consider the impact-resistant material developed from space suits, now cradling the feet of runners worldwide in athletic shoes, offering unparalleled support and comfort. Reflect on the marvel of satellite technology, a gift of space exploration, enabling global communication, weather forecasting, and even the mapping of the stars from whence this technology came.


Dive deeper, and you'll discover how NASA's quest to purify water on the International Space Station has led to portable water purification systems that bring life-sustaining resources to remote corners of our planet. Or how agricultural efficiency has been revolutionized by NASA-developed climate monitoring, improving crop yields and reducing water usage, feeding more mouths with fewer resources. And let's not overlook the advancements in medical technology, from the improved digital imaging of CAT scans and MRIs to the heart rate monitors inspired by astronaut monitoring systems, saving lives with technology that once watched over humans in the vacuum of space.


This treasure trove of innovation, born from a reach to the stars and brought to Earth by NASA's scientists and engineers, stands in stark contrast to the skepticism voiced by our authority figure, Senator Stern. How quickly the crowd, swayed by the Senator's prestige, forgets (if they ever knew) the tangible benefits reaped from the seeds of space exploration. Why are so quick to agree with Senator Stern, despite his clear lack of expertise in space science? This moment, where Senator Stern's authority as a politician outweighs his lack of knowledge about NASA's mission and contributions, illustrates the often unrecognized impact of Authority Bias on our collective beliefs and decision-making.


What is Authority Bias?

Authority Bias is the psychological tendency to place undue weight on the words and opinions of authority figures, even when they lack expertise in a specific area. This bias can lead us to make decisions based on the status of the speaker rather than the validity of their arguments or the evidence presented.


Psychological Perspective

From a psychological viewpoint, Authority Bias is rooted in our instinctual follow-the-leader survival strategy. Historically, aligning with the leader of the pack often meant greater safety and access to resources. Today, this translates into a near default trust in those we perceive as leaders or experts, even outside their areas of expertise. Unfortunately, it many times leads authority figures to believe they are also experts in domains beyond what their actual knowledge can support, something I refer to as “expertise extrapolation.”  Just because you know something doesn’t mean you know everything.


Human Behavioral Science Perspective

In human behavioral science, Authority Bias reflects the influence of social structures and hierarchies on individual behavior. Authority figures have a profound impact on shaping norms and opinions within groups and societies. When such figures speak, their status confers an unwarranted credibility to their statements, affecting collective judgment and diminishing collective intelligence.


Neuroscience Perspective

Neuroscientific studies have shown that when individuals are exposed to authority figures or their directives, there is increased activity in brain regions involved in social cognition, such as the prefrontal cortex, which is crucial for decision-making, social interaction, and understanding social hierarchies. Additionally, areas like the amygdala, which plays a role in emotional processing, can also show increased activity, indicating that emotional responses to authority figures may influence compliance or acceptance of their directives


Authority Bias in Action

At the Workplace

Consider a scenario where a high-ranking executive dismisses the work of inclusion and diversity, despite clearly lacking a background in human behavioral science, organizational psychology, and demographic history. Influenced by his/her position, the team quickly shelves existing inclusion and diversity-related efforts, overlooking the research-based evidence supporting such initiatives.


At Home

At home, imagine a family discussion about health and nutrition where a parent, influenced by a celebrity's condemnation of vaccines, decides against vaccinating their children against the measles. Even in the face of extensive scientific evidence of the safety and efficacy of the measles vaccine, the celebrity's authority sways the parent's decision, impacting not only the family's health choices, but the potential impact on society.


HERO Skills to the Rescue

Facing scenarios like Senator Stern's critique of NASA, the HERO Skills provide a framework to counteract and mitigate the potential negative impact of Authority Bias:


  • Humility helps us acknowledge our own biases, knowledge limitations, and the possibility of error, even among authority figures (especially when they have no known expertise in the area about which they speak).

  • Empathy enables us to understand why people might be influenced by authoritative opinions, fostering a compassionate and gentler approach to dialogue.

  • Reflection encourages a thoughtful and critical analysis of claims made by authority figures, hopefully prompting us “fact check,” to research and verify the veracity of claims before accepting them.

  • Open-mindedness keeps us receptive to new information and perspectives, ensuring that our decisions are guided by evidence and reason rather than authority alone.


By developing these HERO Skills, we can navigate the challenges posed by Authority Bias, making more informed and autonomous decisions that reflect a comprehensive understanding of the issues at hand.


Steering Clear of the Authority Trap

As our journey through the cosmos of cognitive biases concludes, we return to the town hall where Senator Stern's authoritative declaration against NASA's funding momentarily eclipsed the myriad stars of its contributions to humanity. Like the crowd swayed by the Senator's rhetoric, we too navigate a universe filled with authoritative voices, some hoping we put little investigative effort and critical thought into what they are actually saying. But as the examples of NASA's innovations—spanning from athletic shoes to life-saving medical technologies—illustrate, the truth often resides not in the authority of the speaker, but in the evidence of their claims.


This voyage has not just been about recognizing the pitfalls of Authority Bias; it's been an odyssey towards empowering ourselves with the HERO Skills: Humility, Empathy, Reflection, and Open-mindedness. Think of these metacognitive skills as navigational tools, that can guide us we question, understand, and critically evaluate the information that reaches us, no matter the source's stature.


Your Challenge

Your mission if you wish to accept is to recognize how Authority Bias often lurks in the background, unnoticed, but ready to capture us in its tractor beams. Identify a moment this week when you find yourself mindlessly agreeing with or accepting an authoritative figure's claims, whether it’s a politician, superstar athlete or Oscar winning actor. Pause. Reflect. Call on the HERO Skills. Research, question, and seek out evidence. Is there more to the story, as there was with NASA's contributions to humanity? By practicing this, we cultivate a mindset that values evidence over authority, fostering a world more enlightened by truth than shadowed by unquestioned belief.


So, let’s be more vigilant of claims made by others, knowing that if we’ve been bamboozled long enough, we tend to reject any evidence of the bamboozle. We're no longer interested in finding out the truth. The bamboozle has captured us. It's simply too uncomfortable to acknowledge, even to ourselves, that we've had the proverbial wool pulled over our eyes. Once we give a charlatan power over us, we almost never get it back. Worse, we empower the charlatan to bamboozle others.


Let us not fall prey to the bamboozle of authority without question. Instead, let's harness our HERO Skills to navigate the vast expanse of information and influence with discernment, critical analysis, and an unwavering commitment to the truth. By doing so, we not only free ourselves from the chains of undue influence but also contribute to cultivating a culture that is both curious about different voices, and values and prioritizes knowledge, evidence, and critical thinking as the path towards truth.


The challenge is before us, an opportunity to escape the gravitational pull of Authority Bias and chart a course towards enlightened understanding and action, guided by the light of evidence and the engine of reason. Ready for the mission? If yes, then I remind you of Star Trek’s Captain Jean-Luc Picard and his famous one-word catchphrase, “Engage!”

To learn more about cognitive biases, the HERO Skills or any other of Dr. Steve Robbins' presentation and workshops please contact him at or 616-818-6485.

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