Amy J.L. Baker Ph.D.

Caught Between Parents

When Is Compliance a Bad Thing?

Do not turn off your critical thinking.

Posted Oct 26, 2016

In the movie, Compliance (2012), workers at a fast-food restaurant are fooled by a man on the phone pretending to be a police man. The impostor talks the staff into engaging in unbelievable acts and a 19-year-old girl undergoes unspeakable humiliation that she will probably never recover from. Seemingly good people are talked into doing things they could probably never imagine themselves doing. The movie explores how this happens. You can bet that the perpetrator doesn’t start with a big request such “Take the counter girl into the back room, strip her naked, and sodomize her.” That would not work as the obvious variation from normative behavior would be too great.

Just as Stanley Milgrim showed in his experiments in the 1970s, to take people to places they don’t want to go, you have to lead them there step by step, incrementally eroding their critical thinking. At each decision point in the movie, the person feels that what is being asked of him or her is not that big a thing. It is clear that each person wants to be perceived by the caller as cooperative and, therefore, feels uncomfortable questioning his authority or saying no to him. So everyone goes along with whatever is asked of them. Before they realize what is happening, they are in a very strange and dark place. But to defy the authority at that point would mean that they had made a mistake and that would not feel good, so they put one foot in front of the other and continue down the path they had been led. In the end, blind obedience to authority has some very sad and painful outcomes. As in Milgrim's experiment, both the person inflicting the pain and the person receiving it suffer.

I don’t recommend showing this movie to alienated children. To be clear, this movie is not for children. But, it could be helpful for targeted parents to watch it in order to see how good people can be led astray by the powerful urge to be compliant with authority figures. Perhaps we are all susceptible at one point or another to the potent influence of someone we don’t want to anger or disappointment. As a companion movie, of course, you could also consider the fictionalized movie account of Stanley Migrim’s life called Experimenter. The movie explores the cultural, social, and personal reasons Milgrim became interested in the topic of the downside to obedience to authority, something that most targeted parents can relate to.

As I watched the movie I truly felt sad for all parties (except the impostor) and couldn't help but wonder about how much better off everyone would have been if they had the encouragement, skills, and courage to question authority. At the right time and place lack of compliance can be an important antidote to the abuse of power. Perhaps that is the lesson that we can aim to teach alienated (and all) children.