Three students were discussing an upcoming history exam. The first student said, “I’m not sure about this answer, but I think the Battle of Waterloo was fought in 1815.” The second student responded, “I don’t think so. I remember my high school teacher telling me it was in 1814.” The third student confidently said, “Well, my grandfather is a retired history professor and he told me it was definitely in 1815. So, I’m going with that.”

One doctor, one patient and one influencer walk into a consultation room (not all at the same time, the influencer and the doctor were there first). The doctor says “I’m sorry, you have *insert serious condition*. It’s good that we caught it early, though, your odds of survival are excellent, and there is this drug that can greatly reduce disease burden.”

“Nah”, says the influencer, making use of the clinic light to take new photos, “it’s all in your mind, you just need to go on a holistic wellness experience. Here, I’ve got a code for it.”

“Nice”, says the patient, “I’ll give that a try. Thanks, though, Doc.”

If we reflect on these anecdotes, we can see in that the student was relying on the authority of their grandfather as a history professor to settle the debate, without critically evaluating the evidence or considering other sources. Perhaps you even found yourself intuitively “siding” with their assessment when you were reading. This is an example of the appeal to authority bias, as the third student is giving excessive weight to the opinion of an authority figure without independently verifying the information.

In the medical scenario however, the patient didn’t give as much weight to the opinion of the medical professional as they should do; we can see the power of the appeal to authority is diluted and is transferred to the influencer.

We see this happen in many instances in the real world: as a rule, we trust medical professionals over lay people when it comes to healthcare decisions. Similarly, we would generally trust professors to settle an argument about a fact concerning their area of expertise, but that is not always the case, they are not always able to. Sometimes it can be healthy to enquire further and consider whether you should in fact accept someone’s recommendation or response at face value, or whether there’s value in obtaining a second opinion.

But what does it mean for the authority figure that holds the appeal?
Being a figure of authority on a matter is a powerful position and with “great power comes great responsibility” (especially if you are a certain teen bitten by a radioactive arachnid), which can give figures of authority the ability to influence outcomes in the desired direction.  This is not always good, right? We can all think of popular influencers, in particular celebrities who may sometimes wield a lot of influence on topics they have no credentials in and about which they may know next to nothing. For example, Gwyneth Paltrow and gynaecological health, or Tom Brady endorsing crypto exchanges. These endorsements may come at a great harm, not only to the individual, but also to their followers. One key downfall that comes to mind is celebrities endorsing anti-vaccination movements, which can have fatal repercussions if the rates of vaccinations are diminished. The opposite can also be true, and influencer status can be put to good use.

Considering the authority figure in question, as well, the appeal to authority bias can have both positive and negative effects on them, too. Being recognised as an expert or authority in a particular field can bring prestige and respect, which can lead to career opportunities, financial gain, and personal satisfaction. This can feed into the theme of ego and the rewards that physicians can obtain that can make them feel good about themselves and protect their self-esteem and image. This theme can be leveraged by reaffirming how a given product can support the medical professional’s self-esteem and reputation, for example, by using language that shows how that product is “the best”, “most effective/up-to-date treatment”, “reliable”, and so on.

Keeping within the theme of ego, that can lead an authority to overvalue their opinion, which can have a detrimental impact on those following them- returning to the earlier influencer example, the influencer no doubt felt entitled to make a recommendation to the patient, even though they were not the best placed to make recommendations concerning the patients’ health.

Furthermore, an authority figure may be under pressure to constantly maintain their reputation, which can lead to a fear of being wrong or admitting mistakes. This further plays into the theme of ego and managing self-esteem and reputation. It can result in a reluctance to question their own beliefs or to consider alternative perspectives, which can hinder their ability to grow and learn. For example, there might be medical professionals who may consider they have “seen it all” or “tried it all”, so may not be motivated to react timely to, and engage with, a new treatment in their therapy area. This is the catch: if the authority figure comes to rely too heavily on their status or reputation rather than providing valid evidence or logical arguments, their credibility may be called into question. This can result in a loss of respect and trust from others, damage to their reputation, and ultimately, a reduction in their authority status.

Overall, while being recognised as an authority figure can bring benefits, it is important for the authority to be aware of the potential biases that come with that status and to maintain a commitment to critical thinking, evidence-based reasoning, and openness to alternative viewpoints.

What should we do when we work with a figure of authority? We can:

  • Keep in mind the role that their ego may play in interactions- we can leverage it, but we must also be mindful of it; for example, we should avoid language that might appear as directly criticising the authority.
  • Personally, and professionally, there are situations where it can be valuable or even sensible to seek a second opinion. If we receive a mortgage offer, but we know that the interest rates are changing and we think we might be able to obtain a better deal, then “shopping around” for a better rate or asking for a review of the offer would be sensible.
  • Consider the language, tone and information relayed to figures of authority- sometimes there might be resistance to ideas or plans, simply because they see themselves as authority. They might need more convincing or might need the information packaged in different ways to be able to understand and relate to it.

Lastly, it is important to have figures with authority in given fields as we do need the guidance of experts. However, the “moral of the story” is that seeking more knowledge around what the expert says or challenging the expert if there is a basis for challenge is also key to making sure the figures of authority maintain their expertise and are able to adapt and change as developments arise within their field. This is important for the figure of authority themselves, because after all, what doesn’t change seldom lasts.

Three patients walk into a bar…wait, wrong anecdote.

By Alexandra Petrache


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