Monday, December 7, 2009

Obedience and Compliance

My brother sent me a compilation of news stories about the McDonald's hoax wherein a person called posing as a police officer, and asked the store manager of the fast food restaurant to strip search one of the employees to see if the employee had stolen any goods. You've all heard of this, right? Apparently it happened at a number of different restaurants, a number of times, approximately 60 different instances.

Before I jump to the story itself, please refer back to this post that I put up last year talking about the Milgram experiments. The briefest summary I can give is basically this: people came in thinking they were there for a learning and punishment experiment, when really it was a study on obedience and compliance, in reaction to the war crimes perpetrated by the Nazis. The end result was essentially that people will do just about anything when ordered to by someone they see in authority.

What's really interesting about this case of the guy calling in and having these employees perform these incredibly devious and perverted acts was that they are the perfect real world examples of the Milgram findings. I wish I had a direct link to articles, but some cutting and pasting will have to do.
She was a high school senior who had just turned 18 -- a churchgoing former Girl Scout who hadn't received a single admonition in her four months working at the McDonald's in Mount Washington.

But when a man who called himself "Officer Scott" called the store on April 9, 2004, and said an employee had been accused of stealing a purse, Louise Ogborn became the suspect.

"He gave me a description of the girl, and Louise was the one who fit it to the T," assistant manager Donna Jean Summers said.

Identifying himself as a police officer, the caller issued an ultimatum: Ogborn could be searched at the store or be arrested, taken to jail and searched there.

"I was bawling my eyes out and literally begging them to take me to the police station because I didn't do anything wrong," Ogborn said later in a deposition. She had taken the $6.35-an-hour position after her mother lost her job. "I couldn't steal -- I'm too honest. I stole a pencil one time from a teacher and I gave it back."

Summers, 51, conceded later that she had never known Ogborn to do a thing dishonest. But she nonetheless led Ogborn to the restaurant's small office, locked the door, and -- following the caller's instructions -- ordered her to remove one item of clothing at a time, until she was naked.

"She was crying," recalled Kim Dockery, 40, another assistant manager, who stood by watching. "A little young girl standing there naked wasn't a pretty sight."

Summers said later that "Officer Scott," who stayed on the telephone, giving his orders, sounded authentic. He said he had "McDonald's corporate" on the line, as well as the store manager, whom he mentioned by name. And she thought she could hear police radios in the background.

Summers shook each garment, placed it in a bag and took the bag away. "I did exactly what he said to do," Summers said of her caller.

It was just after 5 p.m., and for Ogborn, hours of degradation and abuse were just beginning.
What followed is much worse than you would ever think possible. I'll leave the rest of the details up to your imaginations, but the caller got everyone involved to do exactly what he wanted.

The reactions to the acts are typical, from total dismay and disgust to sympathy for those involved. From one of the stories:
Across the United States, at least 13 people who executed strip-searches ordered by the caller were charged with crimes, and seven were convicted.

But most of the duped managers were treated as victims — just like the people they searched and humiliated.

They all "fell under the spell of a voice on the telephone," wrote a judge in Zanesville, Ohio, in an order acquitting Scott Winsor, 35, who'd been charged with unlawfully restraining and imposing himself on two women who worked for him at a McDonald's.

Chicago lawyer Craig Annunziata, who has defended 30 franchises sued after hoaxes, said every manager he interviewed genuinely believed they were helping police.

"They weren't trying to get their own jollies," he said.

Many of the supervisors were fired and some divorced by their spouses, Annunziata said. Others required counseling.

But the duped managers have been condemnedby others.

"You don't have to be a Phi Beta Kappa to know not to strip-search a girl who is accused of stealing change," said Roger Hall, the lawyer for a woman who won $250,000 after being strip-searched at a McDonald's in Louisa, Ky.

A Fox-TV commentator asked how the managers who went along could be so "colossally stupid."

While the incidents were triggered by a "perverted miscreant" wrote a federal judge in Georgia, the managers "still had a responsibility to use common sense and avoid falling prey to such a scam."

Though the Milgram experiment may help explain why supervisors went along with the caller, even Milgram's disciples say it doesn't absolve them of responsibility.

Just as one-third of the participants in Milgram's study refused to shock the subject, some supervisors refused to go along, including a supervisor at McDonald's Hillview store, who hung up on the caller the very night of the Mount Washington hoax.

"Nobody held a gun to their heads," said Blass, whose book about Milgram is titled, "The Man Who Shocked the World."

"They had the critical ability to decide whether to carry out their orders."
It's easy to judge all those who allowed everything to go so far, but we really underestimate how powerful a force the demand of obedience is. Everyday we live our lives completely dependent on the fact that people are going to do and act in the ways that we are all supposed to. We drive to work or school in safety (for the most part) because we can assume that people will obey traffic laws. Everything we do is dependent on some level of order, and without that assumption, then everything disintegrates into chaos.

I just think the story is really interesting. Yes, the people involved do bear personal responsibility for the things that they did, but I feel a lot of sympathy for them also just because some awful, awful person took advantage of a characteristic in them that in almost any other circumstance would be the right path to pursue.


Salt H2O said...

"awful person took advantage of a characteristic in them that in almost any other circumstance would be the right path to pursue."

I absolutely disagree. Blind obedience with out questioning authority is never the right path to pursue.

We should know why we do everything.

Applying obedience to the gospel, we do things because we have a father who loves us. We follow a prophet only because we've had a personal witness that he speaks the word of God. As a church we only follow after we have questionedn. Some times the answer is 'because your loving father in heaven said so, and you're not ready to know why just yet'- this is no more blind obedience than a child jumping into the arms of a loving father.

Which is COMPLETELY different than the story at hand.

Our society would be much better off if we all said 'the emperor has no clothes'

Silvs said...

To clarify, I wasn't referring to blind obedience, but just obedience in general. I agree, blind obedience is never a good thing.

However, it is a pretty common and mostly useful cognitive mechanism to be able to rely on certain principles and not have to revisit them every time something new gets input into the system, e.g. just being to trust the counsel of the prophet. I'm not going to belabor the point and get into all of the details about what I mean. Hopefully that point is sufficiently clear.

I was just making the point that people have an automatic response that orients them towards being obedient. I think that, for the most, part is a good thing. This is different than my advocating blind obedience.

Salt H2O said...

I'll agree with you on the automatic responce towards being obedient and I'm going to disagree with you on that being a good thing.

Being obedient with out it being an automatic response but a calculated response is a good thing.