Decision Making and the Appeal to Authority Fallacy

When I am facilitating workshops, one of my favorite parts of the job is getting to know the people in the room.  I often ask them to introduce themselves and share something that others likely don’t know about them.

I’ve had people tell stories of meeting Presidents.  Some have climbed mountains.  Still more have gone to high school with celebrities.  But this week, a woman shared a story that made me chuckle.  She said,

“My interesting fact is that I was offered over 20 college scholarships to play basketball.”

We all nodded in appreciation.  Then she added,

“Even though I never played the sport.”


That’s right.  She told us that she had received offers from over twenty schools – some of them basketball powerhouses – even though she couldn’t hit a lay up to save her life.

Then she finished by saying:  “Oh, and by the way, my name is Kareemah Jabbar.”

Of course, her name is very close to one of the greatest basketball players of all time and luckily for each of those schools, Ms. Jabbar refused the scholarships.  But this story reminds me of one of the biggest critical thinking fallacies plaguing organizations today.

The Appeal to Authority. 

Too often in our decision making, we give undue weight to the opinions of certain individuals simply because of their name or title – even when they have little to no experience or expertise with the subject matter.   And, while those in authority should have input in decisions (since they are ultimately the ones accountable), we need to be certain that the arguments they bring are made of sound reasoning and relevant criteria.  To avoid falling victim to the Appeal to Authority fallacy, we recommend these simple steps.

  1. Agree on decision criteria in advance – If your team has openly determined the relevant criteria for a large-scale decision (cost, quality, speed to market, impact to customers, etc.), you are less likely to be swayed by irrelevant information and opinion.
  2. Ask for examples – Gut feelings and opinions are often based on experience.  When leaders’ intuition begins to factor into a decision, invite them to share the experiences that are fueling the intuition or data behind the trends they see, then determine how relevant these experiences and data points are in the context of the current decision.
  3. Invite critique – This one’s for the leaders.  If you are the person of authority, don’t hesitate to invite critique by offering, “I may be wrong about this, but…” or “I know there are other experts in the room, so please let me know what alternatives we may be missing.” This will encourage a culture of critical thinking and keep the Groupthink monster at bay.

At Action Management, we have been helping clients make slam-dunk decisions for nearly forty years. If you would like tips to avoid falling victim to logical fallacies and other All-Star mistakes, just give us a call.  We would love to help!




















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