Here’s an extraordinary story to ponder

In April 2004 the manageress of a McDonalds restaurant in the US received a phone call from a man claiming to be a police officer, ‘Officer Scott’, telling her that one of her employees had been accused of stealing a purse. He said the girl could be searched at the store or taken to jail and searched there. The manageress agreed to perform the search in her locked office, directed at every step by Officer Scott. The ‘thief’ was stripped naked and her clothes removed from the office. The manageress asked why it was taking the police so long to turn up but Officer Scott said they were very busy. The ‘thief’ later said she was scared to leave because she felt she had to obey a higher authority.

It transpired that this case was one of a string of over 70 such incidents and eventually the real police did manage to identify the culprit, Dave Stewart, who was charged but acquitted of the offences (though no further calls of this nature have been made since his arrest). However it was not just Stewart who was charged. In the case described above the manageress, Donna Summers, and her fiancé, Walter Nix, were also prosecuted. Nix was sentenced in 2006 to 5 years in prison, Summers was put on probation and Ogborn sued McDonalds and won $6.1 million. You can read numerous accounts of this case, for example here and here and here (with references to Milgram and Zimbardo’s research).

The question is – who was responsible? Stewart? Summers? Nix? Or even the young ‘thief’, Louise Ogborn? Is it reasonable for someone to say “but I was just following orders” or do we have a duty to examine what those orders are and to refuse if they are unreasonable? What would Milgram have made of this?

What do you think?


0 thoughts on “Here’s an extraordinary story to ponder

  1. ScottW says:

    This is mind boggling that the very first thing that wasn’t done was for the manager to say to the person on the phone “I’ll greet you at the door when you get here”, and then hang up. Most people in our country understand that law enforcement has policies, procedures, and codes of conduct that are followed to perform their normal duties like any other job. This includes approaching suspects in person (not over the phone) and making any necessary arrests if needed.

    Law enforcement does not enlist the help of any civilians to perform their duties which is also the case for any public safety officer such as firefighters, EMT/Paramedics,

    The total lack of common sense causes pause and makes me wonder how a “manager” of a store and subordinates under his/her control even got hired.

  2. Adrian Frost says:

    Viewing the youtube clips really brings home how horrific this case was – something belied by the oft-reference to a ‘prank’. If there wasn’t so much evidence it’d be tempting to view this as an urban myth, it’s so horrifying. It would be easy for us over here to roll our eyes and say : ‘only in America’ – believing, as we do, that American society is so kind of hyper-exaggerated version of our own and that it ‘couldn’t happen here’ – but of course Milgram’s point was that it could happen anywhere…

    Interesting though, is that the orders were given over the telephone,. because in Milgram’s research this factor was specifically viewed as dramatically reducing obedience.

    The manager’s behaviour can be viewed as driven by situational factors such as the ‘foot in the door’ escalation of demands, but surely it’s tempting to view the fiancee’s actions as driven by something deeper? I think poor Louise Ogborn may have fallen prey to a frightening combination of two psychopathic personalities that night….

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