Compliance: What Can Go Wrong When Following Instructions From Someone “In Authority”

I recently watched the film Compliance.   Generally I take with a pinch of salt claims that a movie is based on a true story but in this case it appears the claim is justified.  Further down in this post I’ve included a link to a site with what seems to be some of the original footage from the real-life incident on which is was based.

One of the things the film reminds us of is the importance of verifying the identity of anyone who claims to be an official or “in authority”.


Don’t read on if you have not seen Compliance

This post is not a review of the film.  Instead, it is intended as a commentary on a few of the issues raised in the portrayal.  The names and events are as portrayed in Compliance rather than in the original incident.

What makes this movie compelling viewing is the chilling way in which “Officer Daniels” uses a persuasive, and at times bullying, manner to get the store manager, Sandra, to comply with his instructions.  Starting off with little or no actual information, he uses anything Sandra unwittingly reveals in order to add credibility to his story.  For example when Sandra says the name Becky, he is quick off the mark to say that they have her noted down as “Rebecca” , making it sound as if the name is already known to him.

Sandra quickly switches from being open-minded to assuming Becky’s guilt.  When they go to check whether the alleged stolen money is in Becky’s purse, Sandra says to Becky that the police officer described her exactly.  This is untrue: he actually only made a relatively vague reference to a blonde girl around 19 years old.  Given that there are often people in that age group working in fast food outlets and that there is a good chance of one of them being blonde, this was most likely just a lucky stab in the dark.

There are a number of steps Sandra could & should have taken to prevent the horrifying situation that followed:

  • Most importantly: ending the phone call, calling the police and asking to speak to Officer Daniels.  This would have quickly revealed it to be a hoax call.
  • Asking “Officer Daniels” to describe Becky more precisely.
  • Becoming suspicious when asked to perform a strip-search.  That is not something you would expect a genuine police officer to ask of a member of the public.

There are a couple of things Becky could have done, particularly given that she knew she was innocent.  But it is much easier to see this in hindsight and not surprising that this did not occur to her, especially given her age:

  • Pressing for more details when “Officer Daniels” said that a customer had described her exactly: “Could you tell me the precise description the customer gave?”.
  • Keeping her mobile phone and using it to call the police to the scene.

Click here for a review of the film, which contains what appears to be footage from the original incident.

The moral of the story is always to check whether someone really is an official rather than believing and obeying without question.

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