Appeal to Authority and Marketing

Aug 29, 2015

Appeal to authority means attempting to demonstrate a position is true or valid or reason to trust because an authority on the subject said it; this is a logical fallacy, but does not mean that all appeals to authority are inherently false.

I was applying the motivation model during a conversation the other day with a co-worker who is eternally motivated by money, and believes the only way to motivate others is by giving them money (innovation bonuses, spot bonuses, higher salaries, and so on). At one point during the discussion he says, “That’s because you’re young. When you get to be our age, money is all that matters.”1 (My reply could have been couched better.) I replied, “You’re appealing to authority based on your years of experience. The only way for me to know whether you are correct or not is to become as old as you, which does not help our current discussion. But, it points to an inability in you to explore the possibility you are wrong and that different people are motivated by different things no matter their age.”

This exchange caused me to explore the concept of appealing to authority further.

Mental Model

I see three primary ways appeal to authority shows up in argument: credentials, experience, and rank.

Credentials are earned through a sage-on-the-stage methodology alongside a verification from an accrediting authority. Experience is time-based, situationally-based, or some combination. Rank is a title bestowed by another authority. Generally, to be considered an authority, without refute, a person will use all three. (“I’m older, have been doing this a long time, have this rank of degree, and hold this rank within the organization.”2 Further, most business-to-business marketing is done this way.3)

When I see this type of thing play out in interactions it’s usually from a defensive posture answering an unspoken question: Who do you think you are to have an idea different than mine? In other words, it’s a defensive posture on the part of the person invoking appeal to authority.

In the example above, my co-worker felt challenged and defensive; thereby, causing him to create a team and invoke experience (years lived). This, in turn, caused me to become defensive, invoking credentials; though not my own (I told him about Harvard studies referenced by Dan Pink). The conversation devolved quickly and, luckily, both of us have enough mutual respect to stop when neither of us is really hearing the other so we can gain perspective and possibly return to the subject later.

Stories from Real Life

When I was first asked to edit documents for quality there was a lot of friction regarding my choices. One colleague said, “I remember in the beginning thinking, ‘How many papers have you published’, but then I saw you attended The Savannah College of Art and Design and it became okay.” Notice it didn’t change the edits I made to the documents, only his perception as an authority figure (a doctor who had published papers) of my authority to edit his work (I went to design school); I would say this person is motivated by titles. He didn’t ask what classes I took. He didn’t ask what sources I used to inform the edits. He didn’t challenge any of the previous edits. And so on. He just wanted some credential or experience that would allow him to feel I had some type of authority other than the “rank” I was given (editor)—rank, for him, wasn’t enough.

I was working with a hiring agency while in between jobs and the interviewer said, “The problem I have with your résumé is that you have a lot of varied positions, but no tenure with any of them. So, what’s to say, I find you a job, and within a year or two you’re not going to leave?” My reply was something to the effect of, “[…] Finally, even if one makes such a guarantee, there really is no way to know it will happen.” From this exchange I would infer that this gentleman is somewhat motivated by numbers (in this case years) and looking to generate an argument of authority for me through years of experience or tenure. I’ve seen this in others as well. Those who say, “I’ve been doing this for 20 years”—as though nothing has changed in those 20 years. I’ve even used argument from experience myself when talking about web development, which I’ve been doing for almost 20 years—it doesn’t really mean much considering how much has changed in that time.

Examples of rank are pretty abundant, and I think obvious, but will grant a somewhat simple one: any time a parent says, “Because I’m your parent”—that’s appeal to authority by way of rank.

It’s External

An interesting thing about appeal to authority is that it is based on and depends on external forces outside your control and mind (institutions, time, other people, and so on). The external entities bestow something, which, when appealing to authority as a basis of argument, is used to move other external forces to action or level of understanding. “I have this credential from this authority; therefore, you must listen to me as if I am correct.”4

This reminds me of the Buddha sitting beneath the Bodhi tree.5 When the Lord of Desire asked, “Who is willing to testify that Siddhartha is worthy?” Siddhartha touched the Earth. In my interpretation, this says, “By existence alone I am worthy.” Or, the trial of Socrates where the accusers elude to the question, “Who are you to question? And make our youth question?”6 Or, the story of Christ, “On what evidence do you stand to call yourself the son of god?” Or, nutritionists arguing for and against various diets. Or, Steve Jobs when he says, “Everything around you that you call life was made up by people no smarter than you.”7 And so on.

From this line of thinking in my youth I came to believe that authority is entirely circular. I, the listener, grant you, the speaker, authority on my terms and, without consent (trust), I may not hear you.

But then, who am I?

  1. When he invoked “our” he was referring to another co-worker thereby forming a team or tribe; however, the co-worker did not agree nor disagree with the assertion. return to text

  2. Which can lead to the argument devolving to an ad hominem fallacy. Further, many people who default to appeals to authority tend to think in a command and control paradigm. return to text

  3. growthink; most résumés, as you are the business speaking to another business; and so on. return to text

  4. We rarely ask, on whose authority did the authority become an authority? And on. And on. If one’s mindset is of linear progression and requires everything that exists to have a creator, asking who (or what) created something, tends to lead to the conclusion that it always existed, or a creative force (God, Prime Mover, and so on) capable of creating something from nothing made it so. The idea that there is something capable of creating something from nothing raises the question, “Who or what created that force?”, which takes us back to the beginning of this footnote. return to text

  5. The Buddha - A Documentary Story of The Buddha’s Life return to text

  6. The Trial of Socrates return to text

  7. Steve Jobs’ Vision of the World return to text