Would You Defer to an Authority Figure?

When confronted with an authoritative stranger, the majority obeyed orders.

ByABC News
March 23, 2009, 11:44 AM

March 24, 2009— -- On a quiet weekend in January, Mary Dowling and Cindy Sheridan packed their bags and headed to the Columbus Farmers Market in Columbus, N.J. Everything seemed to be going as usual that Saturday morning, but as they neared the produce section of this popular destination, they were approached by a man wearing a black leather jacket and a black baseball cap who claimed he needed their help.

"Ma'am, ma'am, excuse me," he said. "I'm trying to ID someone inside with a blue jacket. Do you see the woman I'm talking about?"

The man told Dowling and Sheridan that he was a recovery agent, better known as a bounty hunter, and he needed them to help capture a "fugitive," a woman who was caught up in a messy custody battle. He said the woman had taken her baby without her husband's consent, and he asked Dowling and Sheridan to make sure the woman he had identified really was the sought-after fugitive.

Without much questioning, Dowling and Sheridan found out the woman's name and reported back to the bounty hunter. It seemed harmless. But then the bounty hunter asked them to go a little further.

"If she walks away from the carriage and you see the wallet, just pick it up and walk it out to me," he said.

Despite the unusual request, Dowling again swiftly fulfilled the bounty hunter's orders, grabbing the woman's wallet from atop the carriage when the woman wasn't looking. Before long, Dowling was surrounded by a camera crew.

Dowling and Sheridan learned they had been part of a make-believe scenario constructed by ABC News as part of the hidden camera show "What Would You Do?" George Coppola, the bounty hunter, is a fugitive recovery agent and was hired by ABC to take part in this "What Would You Do?" episode.

Wondering why someone would willingly obey the commands of a stranger, "What Would You Do?" anchor John Quinones asked the women: "What's the lesson? Did you learn something here?"

"Probably think twice," Sheridan answered.

But, of course, that is easy to say in hindsight. In the heat of the moment, the intensity of the situation can lead people to do surprising things.