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Don’t follow the herd

How to learn from authority figures without losing yourself.

7 min read


Don’t follow the herd


Most people are easily influenced by adults who project authority or are authority figures. Business leaders, doctors, military personnel, police, judges, politicians, and teachers are perceived as being in charge.

Almost anyone wearing a uniform receives our undivided attention or is seen as having greater knowledge or skills. We’re subconsciously susceptible to people’s physical characteristics and presentation, such as being tall or physically fit, dressing elegantly or stylishly, or simply speaking with a confident voice and manner. We’re even primed to react to the desks and furnishings people have in their offices, which are often positioned to communicate power.

There’s a special kind of learning that can only happen when you’re in the company of others. From debating a challenging topic to brainstorming creative ideas to practicing athletic skills alongside teammates, we get a human synergy when the whole becomes greater than the sum of its parts.

But there’s a challenge that comes from learning from other people, and that’s the risk of being unduly influenced.

The Dark Side of Authority

Whenever we affiliate with others, we’re susceptible to being persuaded by their beliefs, agendas, and needs. We’ve all had this experience: If a few people in a group start looking in one particular direction, chances are we will, too. When people start to applaud or laugh at a joke, we tend to follow. In short, most of us are strongly wired to follow the herd.

We need to pay attention to our human herd instincts. This is particularly true when we’re in the presence of an authority figure. We need to look beyond the nameplate and the suit, beyond the setting or situation.

Our Brains Are Wired to Follow the Herd

There is fascinating research on how people literally shut down the part of their brains that otherwise helps them make independent decisions when they are listening to an expert. A recent study by Emory University, for instance, looked at brain MRIs as people were listening to advice from a financial expert.

“Results showed that brain regions consistent with decision-making were active in participants when making choices on their own; however, there occurred an offloading of the decision-making process in the presence of expert advice,” said Jan B. Engelmann, a research fellow in Emory’s Department of Psychiatry and Behavioral Sciences and a co-author of the study, in an Emory news release.

This phenomenon occurred even when experts weren’t delivering advice that led to the best outcomes. “The expert provided very conservative advice, which in our experiment did not lead to the highest earnings. But the brain activation results suggested that the offloading of decision-making was driven by trust in the expert,” said C. Monica Capra, an economist in Emory’s Department of Economics and another co-author of the study.

The brain essentially gave up responsibility when an authority figure was providing advice. That’s dangerous, obviously. As Emory professor of neuroeconomics and psychiatry Gregory Berns, another co-author of the study, put it, “The problem with this tendency is that it can work to a person’s detriment if the trusted source turns out to be incompetent or corrupt.”

We all do this to varying degrees, and we do it in many situations. We tend to trust others with seniority or more experience. On the surface, this seems logical. But we shouldn’t fully shut down our logical decision-making apparatus, no matter how much we want to trust others. Learning is inhibited when we reflexively give ourselves over to expert opinion. We have to be alert to situations where we are passively outsourcing our decision-making.

From Outsourcing to Critical Thinking

Here’s an example. Let’s say you’re in an imposing federal building, or in a hospital where a lot of medical terms are being presented to you, or even in a posh store. You sense that someone is expecting you to accept what they say without a reasonable explanation. When we’re working with clients, we tell people to be on the lookout for “talking points.” These are phrases that are just a little too smooth and rehearsed. They’re phrases that have been designed ahead of time to sway. Talking points are built into product packaging, many consumer situations, and, of course, political messaging.

You can practice this skill when you’re in situations that have minimal impact. Years back, for instance, Anthony noticed that the price of iced coffee had suddenly increased at a café he regularly visited. Why the price bump? “We take time to shake it after pouring it over ice,” the barista answered with a steady smile. Anthony asked, “What is the benefit of having my iced coffee shaken?” The answer came fast and well-rehearsed: “It unlocks the flavor!”

The lesson is to always use your critical thinking when trying to learn from others. Take in information as objectively as possible, but watch for social sleights of hand that are intended not so much to teach you something but to nudge you in someone else’s direction. (Does shaking my coffee really unlock its flavor?) As you move toward reaching your own conclusions, ask yourself, “Is this person trustworthy and reliable?” And don’t stop there. Consider all sources and ways that people try to influence you.

Thinking for Yourself Can Save Yourself

This kind of critical thinking is crucial in critical situations, especially at times when our health is on the line. Research has shown that about 15 percent of medical diagnoses, the very diagnoses we or our loved ones receive, are flat-out wrong. Medical errors are the third-leading cause of death in the United States, a Johns Hopkins research team reported in 2016. And yet, how often do we question our medical providers or the procedures and therapies they’ve recommended? How often do we seek out a second opinion?

Before taking a trip to the pharmacy or agreeing to surgery, or before ignoring symptoms because an expert tells you you’re fine and not to worry, call up your analytical skills. Ask reasonable, respectful questions. Reach out to another expert to see if the diagnosis or treatment makes sense. The bottom line is to be a learner in all aspects of your life, especially when speaking with experts. Healthy skepticism increases accuracy and better outcomes.

Keeping yourself receptive to new information not only increases your accumulation of knowledge but also makes you a better learner. It increases your ability to make sense of new data. Taking on a project to learn something new—from learning to speak a different language or play an instrument to understanding a complicated political problem—shapes your mind. You become more alert to all things around you, more inquisitive about what you don’t know, and more confident about handling future situations you might be unfamiliar with.

As you embrace your power and agency, request that experts walk you through their thought chains so that you may better understand how they arrived at their positions or judgments. Then, take time to consider the ideas and recommendations of these experts. Your brain is designed to help you, and it will if you provide it with factual, reliable data.

Paul Napper, Psy.D., leads a management psychology practice. His client list includes Fortune 500 companies, non-profits, universities, and start-ups, and he has held an advanced fellowship during a three-year academic appointment at Harvard Medical School.

Anthony Rao, Ph.D., is a cognitive-behavioral therapist. For over 20 years, he was a pediatric psychologist at Boston Children’s Hospital and an instructor at Harvard Medical School. In 1998, he opened a specialized private practice. He appears regularly as an expert commentator.

Their new book is The Power of Agency: The 7 Principles to Conquer Obstacles, Make Effective Decisions, and Create a Life on Your Own Terms.


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