“Jet fuel doesn’t melt steel beams” is a popular phrase among the “9/11 truth” movement. The argument being; that in the 9/11 commission report, the jet fuel burned so hot that the steel support structure of the two buildings was compromised leading to the collapse of both buildings. The conspiracy theorists have several arguments prepared, the main being that jet fuel, at it’s hottest temperature, is still 300 degrees less than what it takes to get steel to begin to melt. Furthermore, the buildings were designed to withstand two airplanes each hitting the buildings, and therefore the whole process must have been a controlled demolition. To add fuel to the fire, so to speak, “Building 7” was not mentioned in the 9/11 commission report, and was also not hit by planes, but had also fallen the same day. However, that’s neither here nor there. The really interesting intersection of this topic is the concept of authority and the legitimacy we give to it.

After the 9/11 attacks, there came a group called “architects and engineers for 9/11 truth” where a few thousand architects and engineers signed a petition to have a more thorough investigation into what happened. The American government had already performed the official 9/11 commission report, and were on the move towards invading Afghanistan and Iraq. Today, the “architects and engineers for 9/11 truth” exists, but as far as the political conversation goes we Humans and fenceposts alike are socially fixated on trivial arguments such as if there are more than two genders, and who is racist or not. The 9/11 commission report outlines the official government authority position on what had happened, while educated authorities in the realm of architecture, engineering, and structural design argue otherwise.

Really, it doesn’t matter who did what that day. What actually matters, and still affects us as ordinary people, is that every oppressive regime used 9/11 (and every other “terrorist attack”) to further its oppressive agenda. Today we have accepted the scapegoating of “muslim extremist” terrorists, as if there are terrorists to be terrified of hiding in every dark corner. Interestingly enough, to be “Muslim” is to believe that everything is subservient to god.

As humans, there seems to be an inborn need for authority. This illustration is simple enough to see within just about every “culture” of humans. In every “culture” there exists a deity or deities. Whether this be a magical man who can walk on water, or an eight armed goddess, or a god who lives on a planet far away with three classes of heaven, who dictates magical underwear, no alcohol, and a 10% tithing to other “saints,” there are psychological authorities in place that serve to reward or punish, much like eternal mother and father figures. In the paper “Religion as Attachment: Normative Processes and Individual Differences” the authors write “substantial empirical support has been obtained for the idea that the developmental pathway to religion for individuals who are secure with respect to attachment runs through extensive experience with sensitive, religious caregivers and leads to the development of a security-enhancing image of a loving God. Moreover, in such cases God, like other good attachment figures…is implicitly seen as available in times of need, although secure individuals are unlikely to need to habitually use the perceived relationship with God to regulate distress.” The focus of their paper is connecting Attachment Theory to religiosity, andthat perhaps the concept of god is there to serve in place as a common and comforting authority figure in a world where none exist.

If one were to look at “holy books” as a kind of codex of property law and acceptable social behaviour wrote down to manage otherwise unmanageable populations, one can see with much more clarity the useful purpose of having talking snakes and a dozen wives for the bishop. These books serve to introduce to the mind certain parameters of behaviour and expectations of adherence to whomever the authority is, whether they be god “himself” or his chosen appointee, who is usually a man with a funny hat.

The most famous authoritative study on obedience and authority is “The Millgram Experiment” where Stanley Millgram tested ordinary people’s obedience to an authority figure by seeing how far they’ll go when someone in a uniform is giving orders while simultaneously taking responsibility away from the perticipant. If you’ve taken psych 1000, you’ll know that consistently in most every experiment performed, up to two thirds of the participants push the button to a lethal dose of electricity when someone in an authority position is telling them to do so.

Edward L. Bernays is known as “the father of modern public relations” for his work and writing on propaganda. He was instrumental in the CIA’s South American coups where he was contracted to use his knowledge in order to foment “revolutions” and establish American approved governments in that continent. The term “Banana Republic” comes from those overthrows. At any rate, Bernays was contacted by a meat packing company to increase their sales of bacon. So doing some research he found that most Americans have a light breakfast. He and his compatriots then contacted a doctor to endorse the idea that a heavy breakfast is better for physical health, to which the doctor agreed. Then, Bernays drafted a form letter saying as such, which was sent out to 5000 other doctors. 4500 responded in agreement. So, Bernays wrote a press release saying “4500 physicians urge a heavy breakfast” as better for health while casually writing that bacon and eggs is essential to this diet. The meat packing company then saw bacon sales rise.

Here again is an illustration of the power of authority. We tend to see doctors as legitimate professionals who are knowlegable and interested in our personal well being. If a doctor says it, of course it must be true. After all, more doctors smoke Camels more than any other cigarette, and that Camel is cool.

For information on god, see the bible, koran, book of mormon, torah, talmud, jehovah’s witness, Benny Hinn ministries, Victory Church, snake oil salesmen, and/or local psych ward.

For more information on the Millgram Experiment look here:

To hear a craggy Edward L. Bernays tell his bacon story look here:

For “Religion as Attachment: Normative Processes and Individual Differences” look here:

For a legitimate authority figure, look inside yourself.


3 thoughts on “Authority

  1. Hi Marty,

    I really enjoyed reading your blog post for this week. You brought up some very interesting points concerning authority, and just to add to those points, I found an article which discusses authority and morality. In the study, they found that a person’s moral beliefs and religious beliefs are independent from one another, and this affects people’s perceptions of authorities in different ways. For instance, people’s moral convictions tend to make them more distrustful of authority figures, whereas religious convictions create a certain sense of “faith” in the people are placed in authoritative decisions, making people more likely to agree with them. So if authorities start to make “morally-loaded decisions” () then this can affect people’s view of them a bit more depending on whether or not people’s morals line up with authoritative decisions.

    Skitka, L. J., Bauman, C. W., & Lytle, B. L. (2009). Limits on legitimacy: Moral and religious convictions as constraints on deference to authority. Journal of Personality and Social Psychology, 97(4), 567-578. DOI: 10.1037/a0015998


  2. Really well written stuff, as always! I do, however, wish to say that I believe that the root of religiosity and the common appeals to authority such as the doctor example or the Milgram experiment are all due to a historically necessary and useful cognitive mechanism.

    I believe that in the case of the physicians’ opinions affecting peoples diets, they committed a heuristic known as an “Appeal to Authority”. While technically a logical fallacy, it has evolved in humans as a way of saving cognitive energy, as we no longer have to look through all of the data on something such as breakfast size and health, and can instead trust the opinion of someone who we believe already has produced such an effort. The Heuristic saves energy for other cognitive needs.

    As for the Milgram experiment, it has been theorized that the participants’ behaviour is due to a theory of conformism. This theory postulates that a person who has neither the capacity nor expertise to make decisions, will leave decision making to the group and its hierarchy. Very similar to the heuristic wherein people appeal to authority, individuals who do not have cognitive capacity for a question rely on answers from a trusted other. The same mechanism in the Milgram experiments can be used to explain the Doctors and Bacon example.

    Finally, on a more philosophical note, the answers a “god” give us are certainly beyond our ability to generate on our own. Questions of ethical rights and wrongs are inherently unanswerable for humans, but in many religions the “gods” give these answers (true or not). Therefore, it could be conceivable that when answering questions that we simply cannot answer, humans use an appeal-to-authority heuristic to find their answer, and when no such authority exists, they simply invent one.


  3. Hey Martin, cool post about the importance that we place on the authority of informational sources etc. The “To add fuel to the fire” line made me a laugh a lot more than I would want to admit. Anyways, your bit about attachment theory and religiosity really raised my curiosity, since there are a number of people in my family that are religious fundamentalists, even in spite of having a high degree of education. I’ve noticed that these beliefs seem to satisfy an emotional need, rather than an explanatory or logical one. I gave the paper that you cited “Religion as Attachment: Normative Processes and Individual Differences” a read over, and it makes a very compelling case. In the conclusion of the article, they mention that god-related priming may influence people to act in either antisocial or prosocial ways. For example, for a person experiencing loss, they may be primed towards antisocial behavior if they are given religious messages such as “god strikes down in anger”. While more prosocial behavior might be induced by referencing more loving religious messages. The authors note that this is entirely theoretical, and that it is something for future research to determine, which made me wonder if this has ever been done. When looking through the research on God-Related priming, one thing stuck out in particular, which was that God-related priming seemed to increase anxiety when completing difficult tasks. I thought that this was interesting, because I expected that God-Priming would reduce anxiety, based on the theoretical framework of the attachment theory model. In this study, participants of multiple faiths, or lack thereof, were primed with either God-related or non-God related concepts, afterwhich they were told to complete an unsolvable anagram task. Being primed with a God-related concept increased the anxiety of participants, but also caused them to persist at the task for longer, despite it being unsolvable. Once they had completed the task, participants who had been primed with God-related primes felt more anxious about their performance. Their conclusion is that God-related thoughts seem to increase task persistence, as well as anxiety when participants are faced with a stressful task. They hypothesize that this has to do with the activation of “authority related concepts”. What is especially interesting about this study is that the effect maintained itself just as strongly for Atheists and Agnostics as it did for those who professed religious practice.




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