Why do we always trust the doctor, even though they might be wrong?


Authority Bias

, explained.

What is authority bias?

The authority bias describes our tendency to be more influenced by the opinions and judgments of authority figures. This bias can lead people to accept information or follow instructions without critically evaluating the content, simply because it comes from a perceived authority. 

Authority Bias

Where this bias occurs

Dr. Elizabeth Turner, world-leading geneticist and director at a large Biotech company, is embarking on a ground-breaking research project. She is analyzing the potential applications of a novel gene-editing technology, an area she has specialized in for over two decades.

In a company-wide meeting, Dr. Turner passionately presents her findings, emphasizing the transformative impact the technology could have on medical treatments. Her colleagues, attuned to her reputation for innovative research, absorb her words with admiration. Dr. Turner’s authority within the organization cast a favorable light on her proposed advancements.

A few weeks later, a junior researcher, Lisa, cautiously introduces a counterpoint to Dr. Turner’s methodology, proposing an alternative approach to achieve better outcomes. Despite Lisa’s well-reasoned argument and robust evidence, there’s a subtle resistance to her suggestion among the team. Dr. Turner’s long-standing reputation and position as director eclipses the merits of Lisa’s alternative proposal.

In this scenario, the authority bias influenced how the two proposals were received and evaluated by the rest of the team. In other words, when it came to evaluating the individual merits of the two scientists’ research, their level of authority and seniority within the company had more weight than the actual content of their proposals. In fact, Lisa’s alternative approach may have been seriously considered if Dr. Turner or another senior scientist at the company had presented it on her behalf.

Debias Your Organization

Most of us work & live in environments that aren’t optimized for solid decision-making. We work with organizations of all kinds to identify sources of cognitive bias & develop tailored solutions.

Learn about our work

Individual effects

In everyday life, the authority bias can manifest in situations where people unquestioningly trust and follow the recommendations or decisions of individuals in positions of authority, such as teachers, doctors, police officers, managers, or field experts. Subtle signs, such as a person’s title (Dr, PhD, MD) or job title (CEO or Director), can immediately influence how we perceive the opinions and judgments of that individual. 

Imagine yourself visiting the doctor for a minor health issue. During the consultation, they recommend that you take a course of medication and make some small changes to your diet for the next month. You listen to every word the doctor says and diligently follow their orders. It never crosses your mind to check whether the information you’ve been given is correct or if it’s the right treatment for you. 

The authority bias has a profound influence on the way in which we receive, perceive, and act upon information. This cognitive bias can subtly guide individual judgments, decisions, and actions based on the perceived authority of those delivering the message, regardless of the information they are delivering.  

When individuals encounter a someone with authority, their elevated trust in the messenger leads to a greater acceptance and internalization of the information they are conveying. Conversely, a lack of authority can trigger scepticism, causing individuals to discount or dismiss an individual’s message, irrespective of its intrinsic value. Under the influence of the authority bias, the person’s authority becomes the message itself. That is, we find it difficult to detach the content of the message from the status of the person delivering it. 

While relying on authorities is necessary and efficient in many cases—such as visiting the doctor—it becomes problematic when it leads to uncritical acceptance of information, blind obedience, and resistance to change. It’s crucial for individuals to be aware of this bias and its effect on our decision-making and, when appropriate, critically evaluate the information we receive. Balancing trust in authority with a healthy amount of scepticism can lead to better informed and well-rounded decision-making.

Systemic effects

The authority bias has a profound effect on who we listen to and who we don’t. In larger systems such as social groups, organizations, and societies, this bias can influence collective decision-making processes, the way information is disseminated, and the overall social dynamics within a system. 

As the example of Dr. Turner and Lisa demonstrates, within organizations the authority bias can impact how information is perceived among employees. Leaders or experts who are viewed as credible or high-status may have more influence on organizational decisions and strategies, potentially leading to important contributions from less-authoritative employees being overlooked. This social influence over other people is referred to as expert power

The authority bias can also contribute to another psychological phenomenon called groupthink, where group members prioritize harmony and consensus over critical thinking and independent decision-making. In situations where there’s a strong leader, a high level of group cohesion, and pressure to make the ‘right’ decision, individuals may defer to the opinions of authority figures to avoid conflict or dissent. 

In the realm of media and public discourse, the authority bias can play a significant role in shaping public opinion. Individuals who are perceived as authoritative and credible often have a substantial impact on how information is received and accepted by the broader population. This can be potentially dangerous for society when fake news, or beliefs that are damaging to certain populations, are shared by trusted figures. For example, the viral myth that 5G towers were life-threatening and could potentially cause COVID-19 was supposedly sparked by scientifically baseless claims made by a Belgian medical doctor during a newspaper interview1

At other times, authority figures can help maintain social order and cohesion, especially in times of crisis or uncertainty. During the Second World War, the British Prime Minister, Winston Churchill, was regarded by many as a figure who united the country to work together for victory2. When people respect and follow the guidance or authority futures, it contributes to a sense of stability and order within communities, organizations, and societies.

How it affects product

In your home right now, you probably have at least one, if not several, products that use the authority bias as part of their marketing campaign. Phrases such as ‘dermatologist approved’, ‘clinically proven’, or ‘9 out of 10 dentists recommend’ can be found on the labels of almost every healthcare related product on the market. Even the clothes worn by actors in adverts, such as lab coats or official uniforms, can impact the way audiences interact with a product. 

Endorsements from trustworthy and authoritative figures can have a significant impact on customer choices and purchasing behavior3. Testimonials from experts can help boost sales because the credibility of the individual influences how the product information is received and evaluated by potential customers. We are more likely to buy something if we know it is considered safe and effective by the people who supposedly know best. 

But how do we know if these claims are true? Using authoritative figures or organizations to help sell products can have drawbacks if misused, such as when misleading endorsements or exaggerated claims compromise the trust between consumers and the brand. In 2014, baby food brand Gerber was fined for falsely advertising that its ‘Good Start Gentle Formula’ could protect infants from developing allergies and using the phrase ‘FDA-approved health claim’ on its packaging4.

The authority bias and AI 

In recent years, we have come to trust AI and its capabilities in both our personal and professional lives. A survey conducted by NordVPN in 2023 found that 75% of American users trusted the factual correctness of OpenAI’s ChatGPT5. In many workplaces, AI is seen as a credible and reliable tool for increasing productivity and efficiency among employees. In fact, AI is now used as a device for fighting disinformation shared by authority figures. Live debates between presidential candidates, for example, can now be fact-checked in the moment using AI tools. 

However, with our increasing reliance on ChatGPT and other Generative AI (GAI) comes the risk that we view these systems as a higher authority which is all-knowing. Unlike traditional internet search engines where users can sift through and cross-validate thousands of sources and perspectives, GAI filters these results for us depending on the prompt we give it. When this occurs on a society-wide scale, our dependence on one source of information can lead to consensus and the marginalisation of other ideas and opinions.

Why it happens

The authority bias is believed to arise from a combination of evolutionary, psychological, and social factors ingrained in human cognition. However, while this cognitive bias has been applied across a range of fields, the exact mechanisms and processes behind why we tend to value expert opinions haven’t been thoroughly explored. 

From a young age, individuals are socialized to respect and obey authority figures, such as parents, teachers, and law enforcement. As American psychologist Stanley Milgram wrote, ‘the first twenty years of the young person’s life are spent functioning as a subordinate element in an authority system’. Over time, this ingrained respect for authority becomes a cognitive shortcut, or heuristic, to help simplify and speed up decision-making processes. In many situations, people don’t have the time or resources to thoroughly research every decision, so they defer to the expertise of those they consider authoritative. Moreover, our innate need for certainty and security is often satisfied when we feel we can trust the opinions and judgments of authority figures. 

From an evolutionary psychology perspective, living in hierarchical societies may have conferred survival advantages, where individuals learned to rely on leaders for guidance and protection. In such societies, following the instructions of leaders or authority figures may have provided certain advantages, such as better survival or living conditions. Therefore, the inclination to trust and obey authority may be deeply engrained in human psychology. 

The authority bias can also be impacted, and strengthened, by other cognitive biases. The confirmation bias, for example, describes our tendency to notice, focus on, and give greater weight to evidence that fits with our existing beliefs. So, if an authority figure provides you with information that resonates with what you already believe, your inclination to trust that information may increase further.  

The halo effect may also reinforce our tendency to trust authority figures. Under this phenomenon, positive impressions of people, brands, or products in one area can positively influence our feelings or opinions. If we have a positive impression of an authority figure, we’re more likely to feel positively about the information they share.

Why it is important

Understanding the authority bias is crucial because it sheds light on the factors that influence the way we process information and make decisions. At its worst, the authority bias can trick us into trusting erroneous information just because it is delivered by someone with perceived or actual authority. This can lead us to disregard more accurate information provided by a non-expert with fewer credentials. At its best, the authority bias can be a potent tool for communicating important information to large groups of people, such as during health emergencies or natural disasters.  

For individuals, knowledge of the authority bias can be empowering as it enables them to take more control over their judgments and decision making. Moreover, in the age of misinformation and disinformation, understanding the authority bias can help individuals discern reliable sources from potentially biased or inaccurate information. 

In group situations, acknowledging the authority bias and its impact can contribute to the creation of environments that value diverse and evidence-based decision making. This understanding is particularly important in fostering responsible leadership, maintaining societal trust, and challenging institutional power imbalances. 

How to avoid it

The motto of The Royal Society, an independent scientific academy of the UK, is ‘Nullius in verba’ which translates as ‘take nobody’s word for it’. The expression was chosen by the society’s founding fellows in 1660 as a warning to withstand the domination of authority and to verify all statements with facts and experimentation. Over four hundred years later, this advice is helpful when overcoming the authority bias. 

Detach the authority figure from the content

The most important step in avoiding the authority bias is detaching the person delivering the information from the actual content itself. Strive to focus on the content of the message rather than being unduly influenced by the messenger’s authority or status. 

The importance of critically assessing the information is illustrated by the following example. During the first months of the COVID-19 pandemic in 2020, a special interest group made up of doctors and other healthcare professionals named ‘Doctors for the Truth’ grew in influence across many European countries, spreading false information and lies to their large communities of followers6. The organizers of the group leveraged their status as healthcare professionals to increase their influence and impact.

Detach yourself from the authority figure

Pioneering research by Professor Stanley Milgram (see below) on the authority bias suggests that people are much more likely to defy an authority figure if they are not physically in the same room as them. Similarly, detaching yourself mentally from an authority figure by convincing yourself that they are illegitimate can also reduce the effect of this bias7

Seek out alternative perspectives and sources

Actively seeking out diverse sources of information and considering alternative perspectives can also help to counteract the tendency to favor messages from authoritative figures. When presented with a perspective from an authority figure, take the time to gather further information on the topic or listen to other opinions. Engaging critical thinking and regular fact-checking can enhance the likelihood of making well-informed decisions. 

How it all started

The first, and perhaps most famous, study on the authority bias was conducted in 1961 by Professor Stanley Milgram at Yale University8. In the wake of World War II and the Nuremberg Trials, Milgram wanted to understand why people obey the orders of authority figures when they involve performing harmful acts that conflict with their conscience. Although Milgram never referred to the term ‘authority bias’, his work lay the foundations for future research on the topic. 

In his experiment, Milgram recruited 40 male participants to act as ‘teachers’ while another group of confederates (research actors) acted as ‘learners’. The teachers asked the learners a series of questions and when they got an answer wrong, the teachers were told to administer an electric shock to the learner who was sitting in another room. Each time the learner got an answer wrong, the teacher was told to move the shock generator up one level higher, so that the more questions the learner got wrong, the higher the voltage they received. 

As the experiment proceeded, the teachers could hear the learners groaning in pain and pleading for the study to stop. Despite believing that they were causing significant harm to the other person, 65% of the participants completed the experiment and administered shocks at the highest level (450 volts). What the participants didn’t know was that the shock generator was fake and that the learners were actors simulating their pain. 

Milgram proposed several theories for why the participants continued to obey the researcher’s instructions, including the perceived status of Yale University, a belief that the learners volunteered for the study, and a desire not to disobey the experimenter.  

Despite its ground-breaking findings on people’s willingness to obey authority figures, Milgram’s controversial experiment raised ethical concerns about the psychological harm inflicted upon the participants and the deception involved in the methodology. Many of the participants showed physical signs of distress, such as sweating, trembling, and stuttering, and three had full-blown seizures during the study9

A decade later, in his book Obedience and Authority10, Milgram applied his findings to the Nuremberg Trials, and in particular the Nazi official Adolf Eichmann who was one of the major organisers of the Holocaust. In light of his experiment, Milgram questioned whether Eichmann and his million accomplices were just following orders, or whether they truly believed that they were doing was correct. 

“The essence of obedience consists in the fact that a person comes to view himself as the instrument for carrying out another person’s wishes, and he therefore no longer regards himself as responsible for his actions.”

Stanley Milgram

Example 1 – Bleach can ‘kill’ COVID-19 virus

During the COVID-19 pandemic, countless recommendations on how to kill or avoid catching the virus circulated on social media. Every week the public were bombarded with health advisories from experts, non-experts, and influencers. One of the most shocking and controversial, however, came from the then President of the United States, Donald Trump. 

During one of his daily briefings in April 2020, Trump suggested an injection of disinfectant into a person could be a deterrent for the COVID-19 virus11. He later claimed that his remarks were ‘sarcastic’ and took no responsibility for the consequences of what he said. However, as the country’s leader, his words were often taken seriously by the public. 

Despite global health policy experts and other officials quickly challenging the president’s improper health messaging, the information was already out. In the days following the briefing, calls to poison centers in a number of US states increased after people started ingesting disinfectants such as Lysol12. The company even released a press statement warning people not to drink or inject the cleaning product. 

 Trump’s position of authority as president had a significant influence on how people received and acted upon his suggestion. Rather than considering the implications of ingesting a highly dangerous chemical, some members of the public focussed on the messenger. Moreover, the influence of Trump’s suggestion was likely made stronger by the fact that it was made straight after the director of the Department of Homeland Security’s science and technology division gave a presentation on recent research into the virus.

Example 2 – HiPPOs in the workplace 

In the world of business, the authority bias often manifests itself as a HiPPO, or ‘Highest Paid Person’s Opinion’. In organizational settings, there is a strong tendency to prioritize the opinions and decisions of the highest-ranking (and often top paid) individual, usually those who hold top executive positions or have significant authority. It doesn’t matter that these individuals may not be experts in the field or that they don’t have the necessary knowledge; it's their seniority that counts.  

The term HiPPO (of the non-animal kind) was first coined by analyst and entrepreneur Avinash Kaushik in his book Web Analytics: An Hour a Day13. When there’s a HiPPO in the room, their presence has a profound effect on how company decisions are made. According to Kaushik, HiPPOs overrule data, impose on businesses and customers, and stifle discussions about alternative perspectives. Once the opinion of the highest authority is on the table, other voices are shut down and, in some cases, people fear speaking out. 

While there are instances when the opinion of the highest-ranking person might be the best option, research suggests that, more often than not, this is not the case. A study by the Rotterdam School of Management looked at the overall performance of 349 projects in the video games industry dating back to 1972 and found that projects led by junior managers where more likely to succeed than those managed by senior bosses14

A company culture of deferring to the HiPPO can lead to suboptimal outcomes when decisions are driven more by hierarchy than by data-driven insights or the expertise of those with relevant knowledge. Under the overwhelming influence of HiPPOs, lower-level employees can feel disempowered and less inclined to contribute their ideas or concerns. This workplace dynamic can stifle innovation and hinder adaptability to changing market conditions. 


What it is

The authority bias describes our tendency to be more influenced by the opinions and judgments of authority figures. This bias can lead people to accept information or follow instructions without critically evaluating the content, simply because it comes from a perceived authority. 

Why it happens

The authority bias is believed to arise from a combination of evolutionary, psychological, and social factors ingrained in human cognition. However, while this cognitive bias has been applied across a range of fields, the exact mechanisms and processes behind why tend to value expert opinions haven’t been thoroughly explored. 

Example 1 – Bleach can 'kill' COVID-19 virus

During a daily briefing in April 2020, the then President of the United States, Donald Trump, suggested an injection of disinfectant into a person could be a deterrent for the COVID-19 virus. In the days following the briefing, calls to poison centers in a number of US states increased after people started ingesting disinfectants such as Lysol. Trump’s position of authority as president had a significant influence on how people received and acted upon his suggestion.

Example 2 – HiPPOS in the workplace

In the world of business, the authority bias often manifests itself as a HiPPO, or ‘Highest Paid Person’s Opinion’. In organizational settings, there is a strong tendency to prioritize the opinions and decisions of the highest-ranking (and often top paid) individual, usually those who hold top executive positions or have significant authority. The HiPPO phenomenon underscores the pervasive influence of hierarchical structures and authority on decision-making processes. 

How to avoid it

The authority bias can affect judgements and decision-making at both an individual and group level. Strategies for overcoming this bias include detaching yourself from the authority figure, detaching the information from the authority figure, and seeking out diverse perspectives and sources. 

Related TDL Articles


When working as part of a team, we don’t like to rock the boat or stick out like a sore thumb. Groupthink is a psychological phenomenon that sees people striving to maintain cohesion and consensus within a group. This is often achieved by looking up to the person with the most authority. Read this article to learn more about groupthink, the people behind it, and case studies illustrating the phenomenon. 

The Messenger Effect 

The authority bias is very similar to the messenger effect, a phenomenon where the perceived credibility, expertise, or likeability of the person delivering information influences how we receive, interpret, and act upon that information. Read this article to learn more about what the messenger effect is, why it happens, and how we can avoid it.


1. Temperton, J. (2020). How the 5G coronavirus conspiracy theory tore through the internet. Wired. https://www.wired.co.uk/article/5g-coronavirus-conspiracy-theory

2. Parker, R. A. C. (1996). Review: Churchill and Consensus. The Historical Journal, 39(2), 563–572.

3. Wang, A. (2006). The Effects of Expert and Consumer Endorsements on Audience Response. Journal of Advertising Research, 45(4), 402–412.

4. Federal Trade Commission. (2014, October 30). FTC Charges Gerber with Falsely Advertising its Good Start Gentle Formula Protects Infants from Developing Allergies. https://www.ftc.gov/news-events/news/press-releases/2014/10/ftc-charges-gerber-falsely-advertising-its-good-start-gentle-formula-protects-infants-developing

5. Grigutytė, M. (2023, July 12). NordVPN reveals: Americans using ChatGPT trust the chatbot. NordVPN.https://nordvpn.com/blog/chatgpt-usage-in-the-us/

6. Milhazes-Cunha, J. & Oliveira, L. (2023). Doctors for the Truth: Echo Chambers of Disinformation, Hate Speech, and Authority Bias on Social Media. Societies, 13(10), 226. https://doi.org/10.3390/soc13100226

7. Brief, A. et al. (2000). Just Doing Business: Modern Racism and Obedience to Authority as Explanations for Employment Discrimination. Organizational Behavior and Human Decision Processes, 81(1), 72–97. https://doi.org/10.1006/obhd.1999.2867

8. Milgram, S. (1963). Behavioral Study of Obedience. The Journal of Abnormal and Social Psychology. 67(4), 371–378.

9. Morgia, L. (n.d.). Authority bias: when we irrationally trust the judgement of experts. Ness Labs. https://nesslabs.com/authority-bias

10. Milgram, S. (1974). Obedience to Authority: An Experimental View. Harper & Row.

11. Clark, D. (2020, April 23). Trump suggests ‘injection’ of disinfectant to beat coronavirus and ‘clean’ the lungs. NBC News. https://www.nbcnews.com/politics/donald-trump/trump-suggests-injection-disinfectant-beat-coronavirus-clean-lungs-n1191216

12. Qamar, A. (n.d.). At least 5 states report and increase in calls to poison control after Trump’s ‘disinfectant’ COVID-19 remarks. Michigan Poison & Drug Information Center. https://www.poison.med.wayne.edu/updates-content/kstytapp2qfstf0pkacdxmz943u1hs

13. Kaushik, A. (2007). Web Analytics: An Hour A Day. Sybex.

14. Szatmari, B., Deichmann, D., van den Ende, J., & King, B. G. (2021). Great Successes and Great Failures: The Impact of Project Leader Status on Project Performance and Performance Extremeness. Journal of Management Studies, 58(5), 1267–1293.

About the Author

Dr. Lauren Braithwaite

Dr. Lauren Braithwaite

Dr. Lauren Braithwaite is a Social and Behaviour Change Design and Partnerships consultant working in the international development sector. Lauren has worked with education programmes in Afghanistan, Australia, Mexico, and Rwanda, and from 2017–2019 she was Artistic Director of the Afghan Women’s Orchestra. Lauren earned her PhD in Education and MSc in Musicology from the University of Oxford, and her BA in Music from the University of Cambridge. When she’s not putting pen to paper, Lauren enjoys running marathons and spending time with her two dogs.

Notes illustration

Eager to learn about how behavioral science can help your organization?