John Keay certainly wasn’t expecting to be woken at midnight in his Edgewater Hotel room.
On the phone, in panicked tones, two callers identified themselves as front desk clerks and told the sleepy Keay there was a gas leak. They told him to break the window to let fresh air in the room.
“I broke the window, and then they said there was a TV in the room—it’s got a big magnet, and there’s that whole thing about TVs exploding—so I got the TV out the window and dropped that onto the street,” said the respected Victoria-based architect.
“I wasn’t thinking particularly clearly,” said Keay.
After the room’s minifridge had come crashing down into the street and Keay had pulled the building’s fire alarm—the hoax was discovered.
“As long as they believed it was the front desk—and who would think otherwise?—it’s not surprising that they might do something like that,” said UBC’s Joseph Henrich, the Canada research chair for culture, cognition and coevolution. “In our society, we tend to have a lot of trust in situations like that and not assume that they’re trying to do us harm.”
In 1961, Yale psychologist Stanley Milgram sought to explore the limits of human obedience to authority.
Milgram’s test subjects were told they were part of an educational study, playing the part of a “teacher.” In another room sat a “learner” (really an actor) hooked up to electrodes.
Questions were posed and, for every wrong answer, the teacher was told to administer an electric shock to the learner.
Prodded on by a stern-looking attendant, Milgram found that more than 60 per cent of participants were prepared to deliver a potentially fatal 450-volt shock—despite screams coming from the learner.
There’s a built-in and “constructive” side to obeying authority, said Thomas Blass, a leading expert on obedience to authority based at the University of Maryland, Baltimore County.
“As a kid we want our parents to teach us values, we want them to teach us not to cross the street against traffic—there’s a constructive side,” said Blass.
“But of course, there’s also a darker side,” he said.
Details of the Sunday night prank were broadcast on an internet chat room by two individuals identifying themselves only as Dex and cravenmorehead.
After Keay pulled the fire alarm, the pranksters phoned back two more times, where their calls were fielded by members of the RCMP.
“(The officer) got off the phone and said, ‘Well, at least you’re off the hook,’” said Keay.
CBC Radio One broke the story, there’s been a great deal of public response from across Canada, with tips coming in from elsewhere,” said Whitehorse RCMP Sgt. Mark Groves.
“I don’t want it to become sensationalized, because someone could have been hurt,” he said.
The same pranksters are allegedly responsible for a late February call to three female employees at a Manchester, New Hampshire, KFC. Identifying themselves as corporate officials, the employees were told to activate the restaurant’s fire suppression system.
Drenched in chemicals, they followed the caller’s instructions to strip down and “decontaminate” by urinating on each other.
In 2004, a man identifying himself as “Officer Scott” called a McDonald’s in Mount Washington, Kentucky, and told store manager Donna Summers to perform a strip search of an 18-year-old employee.
For four hours, acting on the caller’s orders, the manager slowly forced the employee to strip naked and submit to sexual abuse.
“She was crying,” said an assistant manager who watched the episode, according to a published report in the Louisville-based Courier Journal.
The event was eventually linked to more than 70 similar phone call hoaxes resulting in sexual abuse and harassment.
Keay’s reaction was a natural human response to authority, said Blass.
“What’s hard to believe is the ridiculousness of the situation, but it makes sense once you start with the premise that, ‘This person has a right to tell me what to do,’” said Blass.
Keay also believed he faced a potentially dangerous situation, with himself and fellow guests being put at risk.
“A lot of things piled on top of the basic tendency to accept orders even without coercion,” said Blass.
Before the results of his experiment were published, Milgram polled psychiatrists to guess how many participants would administer the full 450-volt shock.
Only one per cent of participants would be prepared to inflict maximum voltage, predicted psychiatrists.
“There’s an important distinction between being there and not being there,” said Blass.
“We are not aware of the unexpected power, the grip, of the immediate situation that can make us act in ways that we don’t think we would in the abstract,” he said.
Contact Tristin Hopper at