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I Order You to Stop Following Orders!

Fight the bias that makes you a sucker for authority. Resistance is not futile.

Did you think the world made sense when you were a young child? I certainly did. Although it was mostly mayhem and madness down at kid level where I toiled away, I assumed this was only because we were young and clueless. I felt reassured knowing that the adults who were in charge of the real world knew what they were doing. Over time, however, I realized just how wrong this notion was.

The greater world is nothing more than a larger, dirtier version of an elementary-school playground. The personalities, relationships, and behaviors are not much different. Everyone just got taller. The bullies, fanatics, and other committed sociopaths never went away. All they did was up their game. No more threatening knuckle sandwiches for lunch money, now they wage wars, poison the planet, and produce reality TV shows.

A key discovery we all make in adulthood, but tend to forget in crucial moments, is that the authority figures we once placed absolute trust in during childhood—teachers, parents, politicians, religious leaders, and so on—fall short of perfection. Even the best of them may make mistakes and lie. Imperfect children become imperfect adults and those imperfect teachers or principals are mirrored by imperfect presidents and prime ministers. That’s how it works. Age does not guarantee wisdom or ethical behavior. Power never equals perfection. Therefore it only makes sense to always analyze and second guess input from those we perceive to be more powerful than ourselves. Obvious as this is, it is only human to overlook it in daily life because of a powerful subconscious bias we all have.

Like all social primates we are obsessed with rank. The subconscious mind cannot resist scanning strangers and placing them above or below us based on cues that may either be valid or mistaken. Most people in America are more likely to believe a claim presented by an old white male in an expensive suit than a twenty-something Asian wearing shorts and a t-shirt. Sophisticated, highly educated people like to believe they are above such crude mental shortcuts and generalizations, but they are not. None of us are. A university degree does not make troublesome cognitive biases go away. An affection for fairness is not enough to prevent us from making errors in judgement.

It may be all smiles and a sense of justice up top in the light but below, down in the darkness of the subconscious, the mind is busy working out in an instant whether or not to lean dominant or submissive. And—here comes the problem—when the subconscious decides to go with submissive, one becomes highly vulnerable to bad advice, wrong information, and doing things one probably would rather not do.

When we encounter someone who outranks us, or at least appears to in our subconscious mind, it is only human for us to award that person too much credibility and allow them excessive influence over us. This is a significant problem that can be tied to everything from buying into medical quackery because some guy in a white lab coat endorses it to following orders during the Holocaust. It is crucial that we be alert and make a conscious effort to think through this innate primate weakness. Fail to do so and you make yourself easier to manipulate, mistreat, and exploit.

We become especially vulnerable when traveling in unfamiliar waters. When we are unsure about something or lack confidence our subconscious minds look for someone, anyone, to tell us what to do. Because I said so is a logical fallacy heard constantly at all levels of society. Formally known as the Argument from Authority, this dangerous deference to dominance over data explains why many millions of people believe blatant lies and nonsense and so often surrender their conscious thinking abilities when engaged with corrupt or incompetent leaders and institutions.

Do not underestimate this weakness within you. It is there, and it will cloud your judgment. Make an effort to minimize the risk it brings. Remind yourself constantly when interacting with an authority figure that this person’s expertise is narrow and limited. No one knows everything. If a wealthy, accomplished, and highly respected lawyer tells you that evolution is a lie from the pit of hell, make a conscious effort to resist your subconscious mind’s impulse to give too much weight to her or his professional credentials. After all, they don’t spend a lot of classroom time in law school studying genetic mutations, natural selection, and the fossil record. This doesn’t mean a person with a law degree can’t contribute something of worth to modern biology. But the law degree alone should not give anyone extra weight in another field when he or she can’t produce supporting evidence.

Airline pilots certainly know a lot about flying but that doesn't make them astrobiologists or experts on the reliability of human vision and memory. Therefore, it makes no sense to give too much credence to a UFO-sighting claim solely because the person making it is a pilot. Meteorologists and TV weather presenters are not climate scientists, so why assume they know more about climate science than climate scientists?

We must keep our guard up even if the person giving orders, suggestions, or making claims actually does have impressive and relevant credentials. Remember this most important fact about human perfection: No one ever attains it. This is why sharp thinkers who want to minimize mistakes in their lives always look for evidence and logical explanations before accepting a claim, no matter who makes it.

The late Apollo astronaut Edgar Mitchell accomplished a lot academically and professionally. He once walked on the Moon, no less. During his life he also promoted belief in UFOs, ESP, the Roswell myth, and other extraordinary claims. No doubt his resume influenced many to trust his claims. However, his impressive achievements and credentials ultimately meant nothing to those claims because he never produced scientifically verifiable evidence for any of them.

Even within the rigid and deeply authoritarian military culture American soldiers are taught to disobey an “immoral order”. But this can only happen if soldiers are willing to consistently analyze and doubt input from their commanders. Remember this the next time you are submitting to the will of a politician, doctor, teacher, boss, or religious leader. If soldiers are expected to second guess their authority figures, even while enduring the extreme stress of combat, then you have no excuse not to in your daily life.

Guy P. Harrison, Random House
Source: Guy P. Harrison, Random House

Your subconscious mind would have you follow almost anyone in a uniform or holding a gaudy résumé. Appreciate how dangerous this is. Many children and their parents placed too much trust in Catholic priests whom they viewed as highly moral people with some kind of special link to divine wisdom and authority. They learned the hard way that the glow of high status can shield criminals from suspicion and even commonsense. Many thousands of horrific cases of priests sexually abusing and raping children have come to light around the world in recent years. [1] The argument from authority has never been contained by the walls of philosophy classes. It is a real-world danger.

Difficult as it may be to believe, there have been scores of reported incidents that involve someone phoning businesses, pretending to be a police officer investigating a theft, and then instructing managers or others present to conduct strip searchers on female employees, and in at least one case a female customer.[2] The most well-known of these bizarre incidents took place in 2004 at a McDonald’s restaurant in Mount Washington, Kentucky. Following the instructions of nothing more than an authoritative-sounding voice on the phone claiming to be a law-enforcement officer, an eighteen-year-old female employee was tormented and sexually abused in a back office for more than two hours. The manger and the young woman obeyed orders, which included stripping, showing her vagina, performing jumping jacks while nude, and even submitting to nearly ten minutes of spanking while nude. Such a bizarre and far-fetched ploy seems too ridiculous to ever succeed. But it can because of a standard human weakness.

The only effective defense against authority’s seductive power is good thinking, which requires awareness, humility, vigilant skepticism, and the expectation of evidence. First be aware of how the subconscious mind can lead you just about anywhere and then make you feel right about it. Be humble. Resist overestimating your ability to think straight when the voice of authority whispers in your ear. Social psychologists have shown again and again that we all are susceptible. No one is immune. Being skeptical of everything and everyone is not negative or closed minded. It’s wise. Strive always to think like a scientist and never fail to ask for evidence. This helps protect us from ourselves and keep us heading in the right direction, toward what is real, true, and best.

Good Thinking, Prometheus Books
Source: Good Thinking, Prometheus Books

Guy P. Harrison is the author of six books that promote science and reason, including Good Thinking: What you need to know to be smarter, safer, wealthier, and wiser.

[1] “Vatican Reveals How Many Priests Defrocked for Sex Abuse since 2004,” CBS News, May 7, 2014,…

[2]. ABC News, “Restaurant Shift Turns into Nightmare,” November 10, 2005,

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