Would you ever hurt someone intentionally?
What about if someone you respected told you to do it?
In some cases, people will believe almost anything someone tells them, if the person telling them appears to have the authority to do so.
One of the most dangerous biases in the world might be the Authority Bias.
This is the tendency to attribute greater accuracy to the opinion of an authority figure (unrelated to its content) and be more influenced by that opinion.
And like many biases, we might all suffer from it without realising it.
Milgram’s Obedience Study and other Authority research
One of the most famous experiments which showed just how likely people were to believe what an authority figure would tell them is the study completed by Stanley Milgram in 1963.
In this study, participants were told by an experimenter (who was the authority figure in this scenario) to administer electric shocks to a learner in another room (who was actually an actor) whenever they made a mistake on a memory task. The shocks increased in intensity with each mistake, and the learner eventually began to scream, banging on the wall in pain and pleading with the participant to stop. What the participants did not know is that the actor was not actually receiving any shocks and so was not in any danger. The participants thought the electric shocks they were administering were of dangerous levels.
Many participants continued to administer shocks when instructed to do so by the experimenter. The experiment found, unexpectedly and despite the learner’s obvious distress, that a very high proportion of participants would fully obey the instructions, with every participant going up to 300 volts, and 65% going up to the full 450 volts (labelled on the device as “severe shock”). Many participants would continue to increase the shocks even when they themselves were becoming nervous about what they were doing.
Milgram concluded that people are willing to obey authority figures even when doing so violates their moral principles.
This experiment has recently been replicated in a 2009 study, showing the authority bias is still strong in today’s society.
Interestingly, it is not just scientists who can come across as Authority figures.
One of the most powerful ways to introduce the influence of an authority figure is just by wearing the right uniform or clothing.
In another 1974 experiment, people were much more likely to follow instructions given by someone dressed as a security guard compared to someone dressed as a milkman.
And unfortunately, other implicit social and historical pressures also appear to make some people more likely to see men as more of an authority figure than women. A study from 2000 showed that women authority figures were less strongly influential than male authority figures. This confirms the other research around gender bias which shows how women have more challenges in influencing groups to respect their creative ideas.
Finally, individuals within groups will often feel social pressure to conform to the norm, especially if other people in the group exhibit views or actions which are different from what the individual believes. There is an evolutionary pressure within us to do what the group tells us to.
So it is clear that someone seen by a group as a typical person with Authority is likely able to influence and bias the beliefs of other people.
Authority bias in innovation and creativity
Often, when teams of people are asked to come up with new ideas or innovations, there is a risk that the Authority Bias will impact the ideas they not only develop, but especially the ones they eventually select and go with.
During idea generation sessions, it can often be the case that the person who is most extroverted and talkative will dominate discussions, influencing the ideas of other people who may be more introverted.
And when it comes to selecting ideas, there is a tendency to go with the views of the HiPPo, the “Highest Paid Person” in the group. This is often the manager or most senior person in the group, and they represent a real danger of reducing the creativity of the group down to what people think the most senior person wants to hear, or to just agree with whatever ideas the HiPPo produces.
The other danger of the Authority Bias comes from getting feedback on ideas from other people in the organisation who have been there longer than you have. Often, they will be more senior, and will have seen ideas previously tried and failed. They may therefore have a negative inclination towards change, and list out reasons why these new innovations will not work.
If an innovation team is too influenced by these reasons given on why an idea will fail, it can quickly sap the motivation from a team.
Worse, these leaders are often rungs on the ladder required to get the support and resources for an innovation project, and if they exert too much influence on what the innovation should (and should not) be, it can result in only projects which please the lowest common denominator being pursued.
Here, having a clear set of success criteria to guide your innovation journey can make all the difference.
And understanding the Authority Bias can make your team stand back and make sure they are selecting and working on the ideas which are best to solve the challenge at hand, not just the ones they think will please their authority figures.
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