The authority bias is when we have an irrational trust in the judgement of experts

We listen to the word of experts and value their opinion over others, even to the point of investing in products they recommend whether its;  lab coat wearing dentists in toothpaste adverts, Jamie Oliver endorsing cooking apparatus or personal trainers sporting premium gym wear.

The evidence it works

The ‘Milgram Obedience Experiment’ was the first and most infamous study on the authority bias, and was conducted in 1961 by Stanley Milgram, a professor of psychology at Yale University. 

In this experiment, participants were ordered to administer painful and potentially harmful electric shocks to another person. Many of them did so, even when they felt that it was wrong because they felt pressured by the perceived authority of the person leading the experiment.

Although an extreme example of how the authority bias can affect people, this phenomenon plays a role in a wide range of situations in our everyday life.

Where it fits in our behavioural model – The ‘means’ METRIC

The three core principles of our Behavioural Model is that every behaviour has to have a motivation, trigger and the means.

The means are the resources to get what you want. This isn’t just money – choosing and buying also costs time and effort, thought and worry.

In theory, the means depend on what’s in short supply. So if we’re short of time, we’ll spend money. If we don’t want to take a risk, we’ll invest more thought. If everyone else is doing one thing, we’d rather join the queue and spend time, than feel like the odd one out.

But our judgement of these things is often flawed. For example, we can only judge numbers in comparison with other numbers and we’re inclined to not waste energy, so the easier something seems the more likely we are to choose it (like joining the queue). Which forms the basis of our Behavioural Model.

The means model is split into six different sections: Money, Effort, Time, Risk, Individuality, and Conscious thought. Which handily spells METRIC.

The authority bias falls under the Individuality category because we tend to follow what others have done, or seem to do, and if that’s an authoritative figure, then we’re even more likely to comply.

Tip for your own marketing strategy:Your CEO doesn’t have to throw on a white lab coat, you can simply use their name as an authority in your communications.

How we've used it with clients


For Well Pharmacy we created a direct response TV Ad to highlight a new online repeat prescription service. 

Research highlighted the desire customers had for authority and commitment from their pharmacist to go above and beyond which led us to using Well’s pharmacists in the campaign, leveraging the authority bias.  We made sure that it was clear our pharmacists were responsible for making sure customers get their prescription efficiently and safely.

To bring the pharmacists, or ‘Pharmies’, to life, we created a bespoke suite of illustrations that show the team to be expert but approachable – the perfect form of authority for this challenge.

Well TV

Other great examples

The authority bias used in Lucky Strikes' Ad Campaign

It’s an oldie but Lucky Strike was the first cigarette brand to use the image of a physician in its advertisements, leveraging the authority bias.

Behavioural Economics, Cigarette advertising
1930 ad for American Tobacco Company’s Lucky Strike cigarettes.

The authority bias is commonplace in toothpaste advertising

Sensodyne proudly promotes itself as the ‘Number 1 Dentist Recommended Brand for Sensitive Teeth’. The leverage this authority bias further but ensuring their dentists wear white lab coats.

Authority Bias: Sensodyne
Sensodyne toothpaste promoted by dentists

How we can help you

We’re an agency that makes your marketing more efficient with behavioural science. To find out how we can help you reach your goals, get in touch now.

By Ellen Jackson

Creative Copywriter