For today’s post, we present an excerpt from Jon Atack’s book, Opening Minds: the Secret World of Manipulation, Undue Influence and Brainwashing.

Louise Ogborn was an 18-year-old high school graduate when she took a job at McDonald’s in Mount Washington, Kentucky, to help her mother, who had lost her job. Louise wanted to study pre-med at college, but the trauma of events at the restaurant ruined her plans. Ogborn was a church-going former Girl Scout and had not received a single admonition in the four months that she had worked at the restaurant.

It was just after 5 pm when assistant manager Donna Jean Summers took a call from ‘Officer Scott’, who said he was with the local police. ‘Scott’ told her that an employee had been accused of stealing a purse. From his broad description, Summers identified Ogborn as the culprit. Scott asked Summers to search Ogborn, otherwise, she would be arrested and searched by police in jail.

Ogborn was ushered into a back room and ordered to remove her clothes, while Scott stayed on the phone. Summers then followed his directions to put the clothes in her own car, leaving Ogborn with only a dirty apron to cover herself. By this time, Officer Scott had told Summers that Ogborn’s house was being searched for drugs.

Officer Scott next persuaded the assistant manager to summon her fiancé and to leave the young woman in his charge. The fiancé, Walter Wes Nix Jr, followed Officer Scott’s instructions, and ordered Louise Ogborn to perform jumping jacks and stand naked on a chair, while he inspected her, to ensure that she had not secreted anything inside her body.

If Ogborn refused to follow an order, at Officer Scott’s direction, Nix slapped her naked buttocks until she complied. She was left prey to Scott’s orders for two hours. During this time, she was ordered to sit on Nix’s lap and kiss him. Then she was ordered to unzip Nix’s trousers, despite all of her pleas. Nix was later sentenced to five years imprisonment for his actions.

Police estimate that ‘Officer Scott’ was successful in manipulating staff in at least 74 workplaces, over a period of almost ten years. While staff at several of those restaurants have been convicted of offences, the man identified as ‘Officer Scott’ by police was eventually acquitted. Louise Ogborn was paid $1.1 million in settlement by McDonald’s.

Louise Ogborn explained: ‘My parents taught me when an adult tells you to do something, you don’t argue. If someone swipes you on the hand, you listen.’[i] Her ordeal was filmed by security cameras and made its way onto You Tube.[ii]

Police investigations showed that ‘Officer Scott’ had tried ten other restaurants that day, but even this one in eleven success rate is startling.

Louise Ogborn’s ordeal lasted for two and a half hours. When Nix left the restaurant, Summers called in maintenance man, Thomas Simms, and asked him to take over. Simms, a ninth-grade drop-out, point blank refused. Summers finally called her manager and stopped the assault. She was later convicted of unlawful imprisonment and sentenced to a year’s probation. Summers was paid $400,000 in settlement by McDonald’s.

It is horrifying to note that the man identified by police as ‘Officer Scott’ was acquitted for lack of evidence, and because it is so hard to define his actual crime. It is interesting that the first person to stand up to Officer Scott’s orders was the least educated in academic terms.

The upshot is that we teach our children to be cautious of strangers, but not simply of strangeness. We should withdraw and seek better information before complying with any request that seems in the least bizarre.

When an unusual demand is made, it should prompt questioning and resistance rather than compliance. As Chaleff shows in his fine book, Intelligent Disobedience, such training is lacking in our educational system or even as a principle instilled by parents. Chaleff also exposes the training given to school teachers that imposes obedience on students using highly questionable techniques.

Louise Ogborn put up some resistance, but, in the end, and out of fear, she capitulated to the terrible demands of Officer Scott. Her compliance is comprehensible; it is far harder to comprehend the behaviour of any of the other participants and spectators, who did nothing to stop these events.

The story seems far-fetched, but is based on over 70 actual cases where a caller successfully targeted restaurants or grocery stores in the US and convinced managers to strip search and, at times, participate in the sexual abuse of store workers. The movie Compliance and the short film Plainview are both based upon ‘Officer Scott’s’ despicable hoax calls. They illustrate the need to transform our relationship to authority.

Those of us who have counselled former cult members find it hard to understand the reluctance of some social scientists to accept the reality of manipulation, exploitative persuasion, thought reform or undue influence. The point is regularly made that members join of their own free will and that nothing compels them to remain within the confines of a cult. But the point is made as if such a belief is factual and natural and beyond any slightest shadow of doubt. Science always allows room for doubt just as cultic beliefs never can.

In truth, undue influence was recognised in law centuries before the term ‘social science’ was first heard. For more than 500 years, undue influence has been a legitimate legal concept to provide remedy for the victims of swindlers. The law of undue influence was framed because of concerns that exploitative churchmen were taking advantage of the deathbed fears of the faithful.[iii]

What do you think about this article? Do you agree? Have you read Jon’s new book? Do you have a story about compliance that you’d like to share? We’d love to hear from you! 

[i] The Louise Ogborn story is largely taken from A hoax most cruel: Caller coaxed McDonald’s managers, Andrew Wolfson, Louisvilled Courier-Journal, October 9, 2005.; see also Ira Chaleff, Intelligent Disobedience and
[iii] Alan W Scheflin, Supporting Human Rights, International Cultic Studies Journal, vol.6, 2015.