Would You Defer to an Authority Figure?

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

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.

Getting a 'DNA Sample'

A classic study by Yale psychologist Stanley Milgram tested how far people would go to obey an authority figure.

Participants were told to deliver an electric shock to a person who answered questions incorrectly. Unbeknown to the participants, the shock machine was fake, but Milgram found that more than half of the participants were willing to administer shocks even when the actor receiving the "punishment" cried out in pain.

We decided to see just how far Coppola, our authority figure, could push the average citizen to take action against our so-called fugitive, Traci Hovel, an actress hired by ABC News.

Although he wouldn't really do these things in real life, Coppola agreed to order random shoppers to do increasingly strange and shocking things to help him capture the "fugitive" and her baby, which was actually a life-like doll called a "reborn."

As Hovel sat at a table with the baby, Coppola scoured the flea market for people who might help him. He walked up to a man who was shopping for pies, and explained that he needed him to grab Hovel's cup of Coke while she wasn't looking so that it could be examined for a DNA sample. It seemed like an odd request, but when Hovel got up and moved away, the man moved in, swiped the cup and brought it back to Coppola.

The man showed he was willing to comply with Coppola. But we wondered what would happen if Coppola was merely a voice over the phone?

In a shocking story that aired on "20/20" in 2005, a manager at a Kentucky McDonald's received a phone call from a man claiming to be a police officer. He told the manager that one of her subordinate workers had stolen a purse, and he ordered the manager to strip-search the female employee, among other degrading acts.

The manager complied fully without ever questioning the alleged police officer's credibility. It turned out that the whole thing was a hoax. The man was not a police officer.

So we gave Coppola a walkie-talkie and told him to give it to a flea market patron and deliver orders. Coppola approached a man eating his dinner and explained that he needed the man's help to detain the fugitive. He gave the man, Robert Clarke, a walkie-talkie and disappeared. In his absence, Coppola was able to convince Clarke to leave his dinner and follow Hovel around the parking lot for more than 15 minutes. Although Clarke was willing to keep an eye on Hovel, he refused to abduct the baby.

After approaching 22 shoppers, only five people flatly refused to comply with Coppola. Some were willing to go further than we ever expected.

When Coppola asked the other shoppers if they were comfortable dropping a sedative pill in Hovel's drink or even snatching the baby themselves, the story took a shocking turn.

Find out what happened: CLICK HERE

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