A movie review, plus scare tactics

This will not be your typical movie review, so let’s get the usual stuff out of the way:

The Movie, plus spoilers

Compliance is a well-acted, well-written, very disturbing look at a real phenomenon that took place in the US. In fact, as the credits roll, we learn some variation of the film took place in over 30 US states, involving over 70 incidents. Compliance has been gussied up for the big screen, of course (our victim just happens to be the absolutely gorgeous Dreama Walker as Becky), but not that much. What you see is very close to what happened. In fact, if anything, the real story was much worse, perhaps too much for the silver screen.

Compliance follows the story of Becky, an 18 year-old fast-food worker who is involved in a dreadful prank. A police officer calls the restaurant and explains Becky has committed a crime, which was witnessed by his surveillance crew. This officer then demands the restaurant manager, Sandra (acted by powerhouse Ann Dowd) pat Becky down, then go through her purse, then strip search her. It gets worse.

A lot of the discussion around Compliance is how anyone could fall for all of this. They can’t say it is not true to life, because something similar happened over 70 times. Still, the question is a good one. What I bet, however, is a lot of people are not aware that this question has already been answered, several times.

Carney Landis Creates Obedience Research

In 1924, Carney Landis wanted to study actual facial expressions in subjects, since up to that point actors had been asked to “look scared” or “look happy”, their likeness captured, and then displayed to others to determine if other people could interpret what the people in the images were feeling at the time.

Landis wanted actual expressions, so he devised a bit of theater where people were asked to experience events, like music, or porn, or an electric shock, and so on, while film and static cameras caught their reactions. So far, makes sense. No big deal. Nobody got hurt. Real facial expressions captured. All good, right?

No. After his first experiment he decided he need a larger, better study. All this is available on the internet, so I won’t go into any details, except the one that fits in here. And that, dear movie lovers, was a requirement that the subject decapitate a live rat with a meat cleaver. Yes, you read that right. Live rat. Meat cleaver. Decapitate.

The facial expressions were about what you would expect of anyone asked to behead a rat. But they weren’t what was so interesting. What was interesting was that while a few subjects just did the deed, and a majority refused at first and had to be coerced into compliance(!), another minority simply refused (side note: in that case, the research protocol was for the researcher to behead the rat in front of them — Landis was looking for facial expressions, after all).

This research ended up being a failure (no universal facial expressions were found), but Landis did manage to light a fire that smoldered in psychological circles until the 60s, with the development of some research designed to study the effects of obedience and authority directly. Enter,

Stanley Milgram: 1960s Experiments on Obedience and Authority

Would you kill someone if an authority figure told you to? This question was one of the many brought to the forefront of psychological thinking after the Holocaust in Germany was uncovered in all its horror. How could people have done this? Not all of them were crazy monsters; couldn’t be. Most of them were likely ordinary people following orders. But ordinary people would refuse to do such terrible things to others, wouldn’t they?

No. Milgram’s experiments demonstrated that most ordinary people would kill another person when told to do so by an authority figure. The circumstances, like proximity and number of the authority figures, or physical distance from the “subject”, altered the results. But, in all sorts of studies involving all sorts of different demographics, if a researcher, the authority figure, ordered someone to electrocute another person to death, most of the time they would. About 65% of the time.

Now, the shocks administered in Milgram’s experiments were not real (the shock receiver was in on the experiment), but the subject did not know this. After the receiver cried out and asked to be let out, and even ceased responding at the 330 volt level, the researcher demanded the subject continue with the experiment and continue with the shocks, all the way up to 450 volts. Most of the subjects, your regular, ordinary people, did what they were told.

Ethical? Not a chance you could get a study like this past an ethics board at any legitimate university on the planet today. So, no, but it was approved at the time.

Compliance in Compliance

The police officer in Compliance was an authority figure. Like the Milgram experiments, and even in the facial research of Carney Landis, most people will do what they are told by what they consider to be a valid authority. So, long as the worst requests are saved for last, after the person under orders has committed to the idea and find themselves facing external authority, looks like most ordinary people would indeed kill.

Have a happy New Year!