Instincts are generally helpful and occasionally disastrous. For instance, ants have genetically programmed responses to chemical stimuli. If an ant smells the pheromone given off by a dead ant’s body, it responds by cooperating with its brethren to remove the body.
But if a live ant is somehow coated in the same pheromone, the response is identical — with the “dead” ant promptly being removed despite clear signs of life.
Marching Toward Death
An even more unfortunate outcome results from behavioral triggers. When walking behind another ant, the follower moves forward, regardless of circumstance. Typically, this leads to the orderly movement of ants. But occasionally, the ants collide and a circle is formed, creating a continuous, suicidal death march.
While it’s easy to condescendingly look upon ants for their unintelligent behavior, humans aren’t spared. Enter the practice of borrowed authority. Borrowed authority is the adoption of others’ endorsements, or unquestioning obedience to perceived experts, bypassing one’s own analysis. This adoption of another’s perspective frequently leads to poor decisions that, when viewed as a whole, look extremely irrational.
Dr. Robert Cialdini describes an amusing example of borrowed authority. “A physician left a written order for a nurse, treating an earache, as follows: ‘Two drops, twice a day, ‘r ear.’ The nurse then directed the patient to turn over and put the eardrops in his anus.”
Establishing Real Authority
Authority is derived from signals associated with specific attributes. For instance, advanced degrees signal intelligence; awards imply success with little other information; financial resources convey past achievements, and endorsements transfer trust. We expect insights, thoughtful analysis, and good judgment from authorities, but what we usually receive falls short.
In fact, research says experts are no better at predicting the future than random chance. Psychologist Philip E. Tetlock tested 284 experts, ranging from government officials and professors to journalists and doctors, about 27,450 predictions for the future. He concluded that they did slightly better than “a dart-throwing chimpanzee” and worse than “basic computer algorithms.” Studies have shown financial advisors are no better at picking stocks and economists are no better at predicting recessions.
Some people do exercise good judgment, and awards are designed to recognize those high achievers — well, not necessarily. Social scientist and Nobel Prize winner Herbert Simon wrote, “I soon learned that one wins awards mainly for winning awards. It is akin also to the phenomenon known in politics as ‘availability,’ or name recognition. Once one becomes sufficiently well-known, one’s name surfaces automatically as soon as an award committee assembles.”
I know a talented self-promoter who’s won virtually every national entrepreneurial award, merely for starting a small and largely unprofitable consulting firm. His secret? He befriended judges of one prestigious award, then leveraged it to become “eligible” for others.
When Perception Overcomes Reality
Perceived success creates problems because there are ways to fake it that have nothing to do with the creation of value. Credit — and inherited wealth — can temporarily distort your financial situation. Past triumphs can paint a fictitious picture of current circumstances. Warren Buffett said, “There was a European reporter who, after being sent to this country to profile Andrew Carnegie, cabled his editor, ‘My God, you’ll never believe the sort of money there is in running libraries.’”
Once we perceive authority, how far can it take us? In the famous Milgram experiment, participants were told they were studying the effects of electric shock on memory. When a question was answered incorrectly, the participants administered what they thought was an ever-increasing amount of electric shock. If participants balked, the researcher reassured them they wouldn’t be held responsible for their actions. Sixty-five percent of the participants administered a knowingly lethal shock, merely for answering an incorrect question.
But shouldn’t award winners, “experts,” or those with advanced degrees carry more authority than the average person? It depends on the situation. Being successful at making widgets doesn’t make one an expert on social issues; a Ph.D. in exercise physiology doesn’t qualify someone to serve as a marriage counselor. Even if the expert is advising within his area of expertise, biases can cloud judgment.
The point is to think. While advanced degrees, awards, and endorsements are worthwhile signals, nothing beats using the ol’ noodle. Reason through what others claim, and if you don’t understand, ask questions. It’s your best opportunity to show signs of life.
This post was originally published on Forbes.