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Could You Be Tricked Into Committing Abusive Acts?

A recent Netflix docuseries suggests the answer isn't simple.

Key points

  • A Netflix docuseries details a string of hoax calls over ten years that tricked restaurant managers into strip-searching employees.
  • Psychologists have compared the managers' behavior to the famous Milgram obedience experiments, showing how people consent to authorities.
  • When judging responsibility, we should consider that over 100 people fell victim to the hoax, suggesting that the caller's influence was strong.
Source: Netflix
A scene from "Don't Pick Up the Phone".
Source: Netflix

Netflix’s docuseries Don’t Pick Up the Phone, which came out in October, details the disturbing case of a man who manipulated over a hundred managers of fast food restaurants across the country, spanning the 1990s and 2000s, to perform strip searches of their employees, by posing as a police officer over the phone.

Like me, you might be familiar with the most famous incident from the string of hoaxes – one occurring at a Kentucky McDonald’s in 2004 that was entirely captured on video, in which a young woman named Louise Ogborn was stripped by Donna Summers and later sexually assaulted by her fiancé, Walter Nix, both under the direction of the mystery caller. But if like me, that’s all you know, you’ll find the series illuminating, as it delves into the caller’s long history of nearly identical hoaxes, told from the perspective of his victims, and explores the investigative and legal difficulties of bringing the caller to justice.

Perhaps best of all, unlike other series of the past few years that have resulted from a surge of interest in true crime content, Don’t Pick Up the Phone doesn’t overstay its welcome; it sticks to the important details and concludes in three 40-50 minute episodes.

Who should be held responsible?

In my social psychology class, I show a video of a news report about the Kentucky incident as an example of the powerful influence that others can have on our behavior. I also point out that the people in the video carrying out the caller’s instructions were charged with crimes and ask my students if they think that’s fair.

The lead detective, in that case, Buddy Stump, who is heavily featured in the docuseries, clearly does. In the second episode, he speaks incredulously about how Summers and Nix could have gone through with such clearly egregious orders and suggests that his views place him strongly in the majority, asserting, “A lot of people that I talked to said ‘Well, hell, I wouldn’t do that! Why didn’t they hang up the phone?’”

At this point, the series hands off to Jerry Burger, a psychologist from Santa Clara University and an expert on the Milgram obedience experiments, to explain how the experiments showed how ordinary people could be persuaded to do uncharacteristically terrible things under the orders of an authority figure. The implication? Some of the people carrying out orders they got on the phone were doing abhorrent things, but they may just have been pretty ordinary people in a highly unusual situation.

I would never do that … right?

Even so, this doesn’t really answer the question of whether they should be held criminally responsible. In this case, you don’t really need to invoke Milgram to answer the question.

Detective Buddy Stump concluded that because a lot of people he talked to said they wouldn’t have gone through with it, Summers and Nix must be unusually sadistic or at least callously indifferent. But he, of all people, should know better. He was one of the first people to discover that over a hundred people had previously fallen victim to the exact same hoax, and many had carried out some of the same instructions.

In other words, lots of people in the same situation did the exact same thing. Stump’s reasoning (and others) is a kind of base rate neglect, which involves focusing on the individual or the situation at hand but ignoring how common an event is in general. Granted, we don’t know how many people received one of these hoax calls and hung up before doing anything, but we know for a fact that many people took the call, believed the caller, and performed humiliating and illegal acts on their employees. This strongly implies that it was the caller’s influence, much less than the managers’ depravity, driving their behavior.

When someone is hurt, people understandably want to blame someone. It’s easy to blame the person in the room doing the physical harm and harder to blame a disembodied voice giving instructions that could easily (in theory) be ignored. Don’t Pick Up the Phone illustrates that the distinction isn’t always so simple.

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