Remember a bunch of horrible phone scams to fast food restaurants? The caller posed as a police officer and induced managers to strip search young female employees by saying the young women have stolen from customers? (If not, you can read about it here.) A docudrama film, Compliance, has been made of the worst incident, in which a young employee was detained, strip searched, and perform sexual acts. The story is a true one, and a disturbing one, and the film is similarly disturbing. Disturbing enough that at a screening that I attended yesterday, some people walked out. (This has been true in other cities as well.)
In the nutshell, the police officer ratchets up his requests of the restaurant manager; in turn she is swamped at work and with the approval of the caller (who is posing as a police officer) delegates to others the task of “watching over” the young employee who the police officer has said has stolen money. It starts out having her empty her pockets, then search her pocket, then disrobe to have her clothes searched. It goes on from there. The process resembles that of the participant in Stanley Milgram’s famous obedience study, in which participants were asked to give increasingly larger shocks to another person (unbeknownst to the participants, no actual shocks were administered. Click here for more information about the Milgram experiment.)
Given this incident really happened (in other locales as well—this wasn’t the only place the perpetrator called), how could this happen? We hear about this case, shake our heads and say that if we were the manager, we wouldn’t do anything like that. We’d know enough to say “no.” But would we?
There are several factors that explain how this could happen:
- · At least in the film, the manager was portrayed as clearly identifying with “authority”—the (supposed) police officer. The caller played this up, explicitly joking that she was his eyes on the ground. She was more focused on being a good “assistant” to him, rather than a good, thoughtful person viz her employee. (When the manager’s boyfriend was enlisted to watch the young employee, the manager very much wanted her boyfriend also to be a good assistant to the caller.)
- · The restaurant was very busy that night, and the store was already short-staffed, and earlier in the day had a problem with food refrigeration and so were running out of some foods. The manager was very stressed, and had a heavy “cognitive load”—had many things she was juggling in her head. This would make her likely pay less attention to challenging the police officer or thinking critically about what he was asking her to do.
- · The young employee did not overtly “fight back” (though she did ask to be allowed to leave the room in which she was being detained); it seems clear in the film that she was experiencing some degree of learned helplessness—a situation in which no matter what she did, she couldn’t “escape” from the situation. At the start of her detainment, she had been told that if she cooperated with the strip search it would all be over soon. But it wasn’t over then, and it just kept getting more intense and outrageous. At some point, she likely felt that no matter what she did or how much she protested, it wouldn’t make a difference.
I won’t give too much more away, but if you have the stomach for an intense film with no happy ending, I suggest you see it.
Copyright 2012 by Robin S. Rosenberg
Richer, S. D., Haslam, A., & Smith, J. R. (2012). Working Toward the Experimenter: Reconceptualizing Obedience Within the Milgram Paradigm as Identification-Based Followership. Perspectives on Psychological Science, 3, 315.