Victimization and Conformity: Just Following Orders?
A few years ago, an 18-year-old McDonald’s employee was working the late shift at the fast-food restaurant when her 51-year-old assistant manager received a telephone call from someone who identified himself as a police officer, “Officer Scott”. The police officer accused the 18-year-old of stealing and told the manager search the young woman; her pockets were emptied and her car keys and cell phone were confiscated and put into the manager’s car.
Afraid she would lose her job if she protested, she submitted to the strip search that her manager performed – all in a backroom of a McDonald’s restaurant. Finally, when the manager had to go back to work—this took place on a busy Friday night—Officer Scott said that someone else must continue to be with the young worker. When other McDonald’s employees refused to take over for the manager she recruited her 43-year-old fiancé to fill in for her. The fiancé instructed the worker—based on instructions he received from Officer Scott on the telephone—to stand on a chair, jog, and do jumping jacks--all in the nude; this was meant to allow her to shake out/off anything she might have stolen.
The young employee says she complied because her parents told her to obey adults and this she did – sometimes getting orders directly from Officer Scott on the telephone. The manager’s fiancé also slapped the 18-year-old on her buttocks and received oral sex from her -- again, based on the instructions of Officer Scott. This backroom drama went on for over two hours.
As bizarre as this story may be, it is only one of over 70 similar cases that were uncovered. Most of the cases took place in small towns. (Why small towns?) And most of the calls were made to fast food restaurants. (Why fast food restaurants?)
There are many aspects of the case that a student of sociology should find fascinating. Certainly, it should call to mind the Milgram experiment. In that experiment, Milgram documented that people were willing to shock someone when told to do so by someone in authority—a man in a white coat. (No one was actually shocked in the experiment, but the research subjects didn’t know that).
In other words, we are all prone to follow orders, at least when someone who seems to be a legitimate authority is giving the order. Here’s another example: Often, on the first day of my classes, I tell students that we will have our first quiz that day. I have never had a student challenge this idea by countering, for example, that I have taught nothing and that they have read nothing on the subject. Instead, students dutifully get a sheet of paper and record their answers to the questions I pose. (I always apologize for deceiving my students and explain the purpose of this little game.) The idea that we follow directions given to us by someone in authority is applicable here as well.
As you can imagine, when I describe this case to my students they are shocked to hear that it happened. What surprised me, however, was that in a class of about 30 students no one questioned the behavior of anyone but the victim. She was found to be “at fault” because she “should know better at 18”. We discussed possible explanations for the young employee’s behavior:
· She lived a sheltered existence because she lived in a small town.
· She had little or no experience with the police because of her sheltered life.
· She really needed the job to help with her family’s finances and so put up with more than she should have.
· She was young.
· She was young, scared, and following commands of an authority figure.
As each of these ideas was floated, students gave passionate rebuttals for why none were good “excuses” for her to “allow” any of this to occur. What do you think accounts for this “blame the victim mentality? Who do you think is at fault in the case?
The idea that an 18-year-old young woman shoulders all of the blame for this ordeal while the roles of the manager, her fiancé, and the caller are ignored or minimized is reminiscent of blaming a rape victim for her assault. Interestingly, the justice system recognized at least three people as possibly responsible for this ordeal (the manager, the fiancé, the caller) but my students saw no one else as culpable.
What happened to those involved? The woman won a suit against McDonald’s and was awarded $6.1 million. The manager’s now former fiancé received a five year prison sentence for his guilty plea on a charge of unlawful imprisonment, sexual misconduct, and sexual abuse. The manager received one year of probation for her Alford plea of criminal confinement. Former prison guard, David Stewart, who was the suspect in many of these telephone hoax cases, including this one, was acquitted of making the telephone calls.
What else can we learn about conformity and victimization from this event?