The Power of the Authority Figure: The Strip-Search Phone Hoax and the Milgram ExperimentRead Now
I recently watched a documentary about how from 1994 to 2004 a person impersonating a police officer called dozens of fast-food restaurants in over 30 states and convinced the managers of the places to strip search one of their employees. The caller would vaguely describe an alleged female employee of the restaurant and claim she was suspected of stealing money from a customer. The manager would then bring in the employee that most closely resembled the description, and then the caller would give them the option of performing a strip search there or of being taken to the police station. The caller talked calmly, fluently, and used a very authoritative voice. He had a great command of psychology, and during the grueling sessions, which often went on for hours, he was able to manipulate otherwise decent law-abiding citizens into performing and submitting to lewd unlawful acts.
The most dramatic of these events was that of Louise Ogbron, an 18-year-old employee of a Kentucky McDonalds restaurant who was strip searched by an assistant manager and her fiancé, but in her case the whole ordeal was recorded by a security camera. This video, which shocked the nation, was played in a lawsuit brought by Ogbron against McDonalds, in which she won a settlement.
Whoever the caller was, he destroyed lives. Many of the managers and associated people who conducted the strip searches were fired and shunned by their communities, and some were brought to trial and convicted. Many of the women who were strip searched suffered from post-traumatic stress disorder. A man suspected of being the caller was arrested and brought to trial, but he was acquitted by a jury.
Most people are puzzled by occurrences such as these. How can average people be manipulated by a mere phone call into carrying out or enduring these acts? Why not just refuse and hang up the phone? Why not just say no to being strip searched?
And this brings us to the famous Milgram experiment.
In a series of experiments begun in 1961, Yale University psychologist, Stanley Milgram, researched how people react to authority figures. The subjects (all men) under study in the experiment were asked to participate in what was described as a “learning task”, which investigated the effect of punishment on learning. The task involved the subject and a confederate of the experimenter who were seemingly sorted at random into being a “teacher” or a “learner”. However, the subject was always selected as the “teacher”. The teacher and the learner were then seated in separate rooms, but they could hear each other over a microphone. The learner was allegedly connected to an electrode, and the role of the teacher was to read words out loud, which the learner was supposed to memorize. The teacher would then ask the learner to repeat the words, and if the learner failed to repeat them correctly, the teacher was supposed to deliver electric shocks of an intensity that increased with each mistake.
The learner did not really receive any shocks but pretended to receive them, and he would also make mistakes on purpose. At the 75-volt level, the learner started screaming. This screaming became louder with increasing intensity of the shocks, and the learner would complain that his “heart was bothering him” as the 300-volt level was being reached. After the 300-volt level was reached, the learner went silent. As the subject (teacher) delivered shocks of increasing intensity that elicited louder screams, the experimenter would prod the subject to continue if the subject had any qualms about delivering the shocks, reassuring him that the shocks did not inflict any permanent damage and that it was necessary for the study.
The results of the experiment horrified Milgram.
Despite the learner’s increasingly louder screams, 65% of the subjects keep delivering shocks up to the maximum 450-volt level even after the learner went “silent” when the 300-volt level was reached. Many of the subjects experienced serious distress as a result of what they were asked to do, nonetheless a large number of them complied with the experimenter’s requests. Milgram surmised from his experiments that when prodded by a person whom people believe to be an authority figure (in this case the experimenter), many individuals will comply with their instructions even if they go against some of their strongest moral imperatives against harming fellow human beings. Other researchers at the time also repeated experiments similar to Milgram’s and obtained more or less similar results.
The methodology and conclusions of Milgram have been criticized, and national experimental guidelines enacted in the seventies have rendered these types of experiments unethical, so they cannot be reproduced today. But more benign forms of the experiment have been conducted with similar results. It is because of this that some people argue that the acts performed or endured by people in the strip-search phone hoax in response to what they thought were the requests of a policeman (an authority figure) can be explained in the context of Milgram’s experimental results.
The original context of the Milgram experiment was about people hurting other people when prodded by an authority figure, but I wonder if this prodding can be employed in more subtle ways. In present times, we are faced with the reality that large numbers of people have decided to forgo reason and accept misinformation, disinformation, and conspiracies such as those related to the antivaccine movement, the denial of the results of the 2020 election, or the bizarre QAnon world view. And these people have their trusted messengers whom they revere and whose utterances they accept as true. Could it be that these people view these trusted messengers as authority figures? Could it be that when these authority figures tell them to essentially disavow or ignore common sense, they somehow feel it’s OK to do it even though something inside them tells them that what they are accepting is inaccurate or wrong?
I don’t know if this is true, but in view of the results of the Milgram and other similar experiments, it is certainly a possibility to consider.
The image by Nick Youngson from Pix4free is used here under an Attribution-ShareAlike 3.0 Unported (CC BY-SA 3.0) license.