Authority Bias: Obedience, The Milgram Experiment, & Influencer Marketing Examples

Examples of human obedience to authority bias can be found throughout history. We can look back to the bible for the first instances of authority bias, then to science in the Milgram Experiment, all the way to present day social media. How can you overcome authority bias?

Authority Marketing. Influencers. People being shocked at 450 volts. Read on.

This article gets into the heart of authority marketing and why it's so amazingly effective.

Authority Bias. Social media. Human corruption. What's it all got in common?

Influence ties all these topics together, as Robert Cialdini writes:

"Authority bias is adaptive"

Piece together this puzzle:

Why would one human shock another with nearly 450 volts of electricity?

Why would an entire nation buy into the values of a fascist regime?

Why would thousands of social media followers believe the promises of one "blue checkmark" influencer?

There culprit behind all these phenomena's is authority bias and we're going to explore why it's so powerful.

Authority Marketing Breakdown

The Milgram Experiment

  • What’s to Blame? Authority Bias

History of Authority Bias

  • Authority Bias in The Bible
  • Authority Bias in World War 2

Our Desire To Obey Authority

  • Childhood: Our First Encounter With Authority

Security in Authority

  • Why Authority-figures make us feel safe

The Story of Authority

  • The Role of Authority in Adolescence

Authority’s Role in Adult Life

  • Are we Buying Into Stories or Symbols?
  • Goffman’s Take on High-Status Authority

The Blue-Checkmark aka The Digital Suit

  • The Power Of The Blue-Checkmark: Authority Bias In The Digital Age
  • How influencers play a role in the tourism and health industry

Stories & Their Importance For Human Evolution

  • Believing in One Story & Evolving as a Species
  • How to Keep Authority in Check
girl holding her head with quotes surrounding her
In the Information Age it can be difficult to discern which authorities we should listen to.

In the 21st century, communication is at an all-time high .

There are more ways to stay connected today than ever before.

This is important because as mentioned, humans rely on communication to tell stories to maintain dominance and evolve.

To lighten our cognitive load, we rely on symbols to convey stories.

The right symbols convey abstract thought into something coherent we can follow. In this post-truth digital era, it is difficult for us to make the right decision, even when we listen to authority.

That’s because there are more authorities today than ever before, and finding truth in misinformation is a difficult task.

Doctors, teachers, lawyers, accountants, and economists reach their status in the hierarchy through years of education, training, and experience.

It’s unwise to question a doctor’s prescription or an accountant's calculations.  

These high-status authorities have symbols of their position in the hierarchy.

The doctor has a title, the accountant drives a luxury car and wears a tailored suit. These symbols are good. They help us identify who’s in charge and who can help us make informed decisions.

However, these authority figures are only authorities within their field of expertise. Danger comes when we give these authorities power outside of their fields because of their status.

In the digital age, authority figures are weighing in more frequently on topics outside of their field of expertise.

We crave guidance and we want to make the right decisions, that's why we need authorities.

But there are now multiple authorities, each one with a different opinion on what is right. And opinion is all they have.

Let’s examine one of the most famous experiments uncovering the power of authority bias.  

The Milgram Experiment

Smoking yellow brain with statistic from the Milgram Experiment
The shocking results of the Milgram Experiment

Their fingernails dug into their flesh.

They begged the researcher to let them stop to no avail. So they continued.

They trembled, perspired, and shook while stuttering through more pleas to end the madness. They bit their lips until they bled and used their hands to cradle their head.

Some fell into fits of nervous laughter. A businessman who entered the lab sharp, smiling, and confident was now a twitching stuttering mess on the brink of breakdown.

He tugged his earlobe, contorted his hands, and pressed his knuckles against his forehead.

“Oh God, let’s stop it!”

And yet he continued,

as they all did,

to hang on to the researcher’s every command;

obeying until the end.

Doctor, Research, Chemical, Observes, Microscope
The power of a simple researcher in a lab coat was enough to cause chaos in the Milgram Experiment

This is an account from the Milgram Experiment in 1961, named after lead researcher, Stanley Milgram.

Milgram discovered that two thirds of people would shock you with enough electricity to kill if told to do so by a man in a lab coat. How did he do that?

Participants in the study acted as teachers asking students skill testing questions. Students who answered correctly received a new question. Students who missed the mark, earned an electric shock.

30 voltage switches were at the teacher’s disposal. The strength of each shock level increased 15 volts with every incorrect response. When flipped, the 30th switch delivered 450-volts of electricity.

Milgram and his colleagues received the most stunning shock.

They as professional psychologists theorized only 1-2% of participants would be callous enough to flip the final 450-volt switch. In reality, 66% of participants completed the circuit, powering through the student’s cries and pleas to stop the agony to flick the final switch.

This is how under-estimated authority bias is even in the perception of professionals of the field. But, digging deeper, what’s going on beneath the surface?

Do you think the teachers in Milgram’s study were psychopaths?

Suppressed individuals looking to inflict pain on the innocent perhaps?

Far from it.

The Culprit, You Ask? Authority Bias

Even though they heard in another room the student’s pleas and screams (which were acted out), the encouragement of the researcher, the authority, pushed them forward.

Authority bias does not limit itself to experiments or history.

It is part of how we conduct ourselves in everyday life through the stories we tell in the social hierarchy.

And of course, authority bias spills into our digital world.

Online authorities are in abundance and often challenge real-world authorities with their influence. Today authority has become a double-edged sword as it breaks out of traditional channels.

In the past, money and institutions were the established paths forward.

Cover of Yuval Noah Harari's Sapiens
Yuval Harrari's "Sapiens"

Yet, in the digital age, we see influencers building up audiences around misinformation. Creating division within the human species.

And as Yuval, author of Sapiens would say, we largely progressed due to our ability to tell stories and agree upon them.

In the past, most authority got there through status, experience, and was a sound judge of reason.

Today an authority could be an influencer, sometimes a child, and often validated not by experience but through likes, popularity votes, and other forms of engagement.

But, let's not get ahead of ourselves.

First, let’s examine the history of authority bias to understand its modern function and discover its lead role in our evolution.

And God Said...

Man holding dagger above boy while shielding his eyes
Authority Bias in The Bible: Abraham preparing to sacrifice his son to God

Authority bias appears in the Bible when Abraham enters a test of obedience with God himself.

Without any explanation, God calls on Abraham to plunge a dagger into his son's heart. Abraham loves his son. But he is prepared to do what is necessary to show his obedience to the Almighty Father.

God mercifully stops Abraham before he commits the deed. Abraham passes the test.

The insight that arises is just how deeply ingrained listening to authority is within western culture.

Right from the beginning, it was a matter of going along with something you didn’t believe in because you were told to.

The Rise of Evil

Hitler arching with the Nazi army
Historic Nazi propaganda painting Hitler as a God-Like authority figure

Authority bias also helped the Nazi regime march to power in Germany.

A Harvard study analyzed Nazi propoganda and found links to authority bias.

Posters and media often portrayed Hitler with a God-like authoritative appearance. This helped the public digest Nazi ideologies and buy into their narrative.

Another example is known as pluralistic ignorance; a situation in which a majority of group members privately reject a norm, but go along with it because they assume, incorrectly, that others accept it.

This is one of the factors for illegitimate political regimes: illusory public support. From communist Russia to Nazi Germany. It's a combination of central authority decreeing certain "truths" and feeling that everyone around you accepts them.

“…ordinary people, simply doing their jobs, and without any particular hostility on their part, can become agents in a terrible destructive process. Moreover, even when the destructive effects of their work become patently clear, and they are asked to carry out actions incompatible with fundamental standards of morality, relatively few people have the resources needed to resist authority.”

— Stanley Milgram in “Obedience to Authority

Our Desire To Obey Authority

Woman walking with her son
Our parents are the first authority figures we deal with

For most of us, the first relationship we ever have is with our parents. Our parents are also the first authority figures we encounter. We are told authority, for the most part, is a good thing.

In Psychology Today, Dr. Carl E. Pickhardt wrote an article emphasizing our childhood need to lighten our cognitive load. We rely on our parents, the main authorities in our lives, to make the right choices for us:

In childhood, the benefit of parental authority is that it gives structure and direction to a child's life - parents declaring what to do, what not to do, what is right, what is wrong, what works, what doesn't work.

It gives the child a reference for making informed decisions that they can internalize and follow without having to figure out how to believe and behave entirely on their own.

The child needs this foundation for safe and healthy functioning.

Our need to lighten our cognitive load doesn’t end in childhood.

As adults we still crave authorities to tell us what to do. To show us the right path. That’s what gave God power over Abraham, and Hitler power over an entire nation.

What drives the desire for authority is the original story we are told about authority.

Yet, it can come in many flavours.

Security in Authority

Blue Light, Siren, Police, Officer, Cop, Security
The police wield multiple symbols of authority, which we obey.

Think about a policeman, scientist, judge, chef, what do you see? Yes. There is the person, but there's more - there are symbols imbued with authority.

The police officer's uniform, the scientist in a lab coat or white coat, judge's robes, chef's hat; these symbols are designed to elevate authority within specific contexts.

In fact, psychologists say that there's a deep innate need in humans for authority. And it’s not hard to understand why.

"We don't know anything about the world, how can we figure out what to do?"

The authority bias is an inevitable consequence of people trusting others more than they should because of their status or title.

Ultimately, we want to trust someone, or something, and not have to think through every little detail. And are we so wrong in wanting that? We are only human after all.

Most of our institutions are based on tradition, rules of the past, which we inherit.

Without trust in authority, it would be hard to specialize in industry, work, art, pretty much anything and everything would be a lot slower.

The Story of Authority

What separates humans from all other mammals is our ability to tell stories. Stories require belief, at the social level for them to be passed down from generation to generation.

For a story to be believed, it requires some level of authority.

The initial story: “Authority is Good” comes from the Bible itself.

God is the main authority. God is also good. Therefore, authority is good. That is the story.

And that is the belief that permeates through most of the social hierarchy.

Rebels Without A Cause?

Teenage girl with glasses
Teenage rebellion: We're not rebelling against all authority. We're searching for new ones.

In our youth, our parents’ word is final. That’s the story we believe.

As we grow, we expose ourselves to new authorities. We encounter teachers, friends, co-workers, bosses, and celebrities.

Our parents’ authority loses traction. They no longer understand what’s best for us.

In adolescence, we start to question the story we learned as kids. Teenagers are labelled as rebels.

Rebelling against their parents’ authority, but not authority as a whole. They still crave authority to tell them what to do. They just want the guidance to come from a new source.

The new authorities; friends, celebrities, teachers, and bosses, help young adults find a home within the social hierarchy and buy into new stories.

Goffman’s Take On High-Status Authority

Sociologist Erving Goffman defines status as a ranking on the scale of social prestige.

There is a level of co-operation based on status alone. Status tells a story.

A person with social status should behave in a certain way. They must follow a story. And those who interact with them have a story to follow as well.

A study published in the Journal of Experimental Social Psychology found that participants wearing a lab coat, a piece of clothing associated with intelligence and focus, had improved performance on tests measuring close and sustained attention.

The results were not the same when the coat was referred to as a “visual artist’s coat” before taking the test.

“The clothes we wear have power not only over others, but also over ourselves,” Northwestern University scholars Hajo Adam and Adam Galinsky write in the Journal of Experimental Social Psychology.

Status symbols visually show a person’s position in a social hierarchy. These symbols tell a story to the rest of society and hold a tremendous amount of power.

These status symbols allow us to identify who ranks higher in the social hierarchy, who has authority, and who we should listen to.

One of the most dominant symbols in our society is the well tailored suit. It essentially holds the same significance around the world. People in suits are extremely influential.

A Texas study featured a man in a well tailored suit jaywalk in front of a group of bystanders.

The same man jaywalked again, but this time he wore a plain t-shirt and jeans. 3.5 times as many bystanders followed the man when he was dressed in a suit.

That is the power of status symbols.

Another study conducted in San Francisco found that people would wait longer to honk their horns at owners of prestigious cars (i.e Mercedes) who were stopped at green lights. In contrast, they had no problem immediately honking at owners of economy class vehicles (i.e Hondas).

The Blue-Checkmark, AKA, The Digital Suit

Man with a blue checkmark
The Blue Checkmark, or as we'd like to call it, the Digital Suit.

The suit symbolizes a story, and it's a story the majority of society believes in:

The successful wear suits.

If someone is wearing a suit, they must be successful.

That means they hold a high position in the social hierarchy.

This gives them authority.  

While listening to authorities like doctors and accountants is generally good, listening to those with status symbols of authority can be dangerous.

This is when we start to give authorities power outside of their area of expertise.

Most of them are unqualified. The problem is we can’t distinguish the actors from the professionals. We don’t know how to find truth anymore.

There is now a digital system, social media, which incentivizes content creations and getting opinions out.

People are creating content and thoughts around concepts they know little about, misleading others in turn. This is a net drain on human productivity and progress.  

This abuse of power is magnified through what we will call the digital suit: The blue-checkmark.

The Power Of The Blue-Checkmark: Authority Bias In The Digital Age

The current definition of the word “Influencer” has two stipulations:

  1. The power to influence someone else’s buying decisions because of their authority, knowledge, expertise, or relationship to their audience.
  2. A following in a particular niche the influencer engages with. The larger the following, the more credibility the influencer has.

Doctors, accountants, and business executives reach their authority “influencer” status through years of experience, education, and work within their field. Someone who dedicates their life to becoming an expert in a field has authority in that field, and should be listened to.

Digital influencers create content that engages a niche audience. This audience follows the influencer, which gives them a certain level of status on social media.

Influencers with large followings are awarded the prestigious “blue-checkmark,” to symbolize their influence and authority in the digital space.

There is now a new level of trust between the influencer, their followers, and potential followers.

meme: When someone with a blue checkmark you don't know follows you on twitter. Image of Fry from Futurama with the text seems legit... followed by a twitter follow button

The blue-check mark, like the well tailored suit, allows influencers to reach outside their following and influence others on topics unrelated to their niche.

Influencers have a huge impact on the tourism industry. Through vacation pictures alone, influencers can inspire hordes of followers to vacation in a specific destination.

Sandwich in a styrofoam container
The disastrous FyreFestival has an entire Netflix special dedicated to it.

When influencers jumped on board to promote the Fyre Festival in 2017, 5,000 people spent thousands of dollars for tickets to what they thought would be the experience of a lifetime.

Set in the Bahamas, the festival promised tropical sunshine by day and celebrations deep into the night.

The festival turned out to be a disaster. Attendees arrived to a limited number of tents, instead of the luxury villas they were promised, packed with soaking wet mattresses and cheap food. A far cry from luxury.  

More Than Just Vacation Destinations

The issue in the post-truth digital age is that authority is magnified.

There is not one sole digital influencer.

Everyone on social media has their own following, which means that everyone, in their own way, is an authority figure. This blurs the lines of what is true and who should be listened to.

It’s a strong mix when corporations, with their own stories of authority, embrace influencers to form an authority alliance.

The goal is to have the corporate narrative and digital authority of the influencer work in harmony to persuade masses to buy a product. This is rarely the case.

meme: text: companies after pride month image from toy story of boy dropping a top that is replaced with a pride flag. in the image is text that says "I don't want to play with you anymore"
Corporations love latching on to social media trends. Sometimes it backfires.

Every June this becomes apparent when companies attempt to align themselves with a social movement.

For the rest of the year they remain silent on the topic, and the general public has caught on to this “display” of support.  

There’s the Superbowl mismatch between influencer Kylie Jenner and soda behemoth Pepsi, where the supermodel puts an end to a Black Lives Matter protest by offering an officer a bottle. This is a light offence.

Then there’s Kim Kardashian pushing morning sickness drug Diclegis on her Instagram without disclosing the harmful side effects. Kardashian earned her influence as a model and entrepreneur, not as a doctor.

This is a prime example of an influencer using their power outside of their niche.  

Kim Kardashian holding a bottle of morning sickness medication
Who can we trust on social media? Here's Kim Kardashian selling morning sickness meds.

Digital influencers couldn’t stay away from the medical field, especially during the pandemic.

These status wielding authority figures battled one another over the effectiveness of the vaccine, when health professionals already delivered facts to the public. Yet the dueling authorities, with their massive amounts of influence, only help to confuse the public.

Believing In One Story & Evolving As A Species

Various views from different authorities during a crisis has the potential to make humans weaker as a species through the spread of misinformation.

Remember, we evolved to be superior to all other mammals based on our ability to cooperate through stories. Stories which we all believed in and agreed on. These stories earned credibility because they were being passed down from those in authority, operating in their field of expertise.

Today it’s difficult to distinguish bias due to factors such as money, politics, and influence.

There are even bot farms, content farms, and groups of people who get online everyday to troll or deny certain events to blur public perception.

Social media influencers should have no say in prescribing medication or obeying health sanctions, and yet they do. Even though authority bias has led us astray in the past, for the majority of human existence, it has done us good.

How To Keep Authority Bias In Check?

Quote from Noam Chomsky "I think it only makes sense to seek out and identify structures of authority, hierarchy, and domination in every aspect of life, and to challenge them; unless a justification for them can be given, they are illegitimate, and should be dismantled, to increase the scope of human freedom."
Noam Chomsky at his finest

In the post-truth digital age everyone has access to symbols of authority, but not everyone is an authority.

The ture authority figure: those with credentials to back up their symbols, are the ones who need to write the new stories necessary to help us progress further as a species.

Although we have shown the drawbacks of authority bias through the Milgram experiments, and the rise of dangerous political movements, authority bias is also responsible for medical and scientific breakthroughs.

So, when should you question authority? We’ll leave you with these reference points:

1) Is the authority truly an expert?

2) Does their authority apply to the situation at hand?

Asking yourself these questions will help you identify authority in the physical and digital space.

But, as often, it’s about increasing awareness of the situation, so don’t stress out about authority bias or try to avoid it. Just do your best to keep on increasing awareness and carry on.

That’s it for today folks, there’s your food for thought. And let us know examples of authority bias that you think we should have included in the content :)

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