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Morality, Meta and Manipulation

So my sister was out to lunch with colleagues a couple of days ago and ended up being caught on film by the "ethics situational" show What Would You Do? It's a pretty interesting story with lots of meta about how the sense we might be being watched affects our behavior and how even after doing the right thing we're afraid we'll be misunderstood...

She was in a restaurant near where she works in Las Vegas. She was with a female and male colleague. As they were sitting there, in walked a group of people who appeared to be a Mormon family -- a man and five women of varying ages, their hair up in buns, dressed in conservative pastel dresses like the polygamist sect in Texas. The youngest-looking girl was obviously upset and seemed to be crying. Over the course of the next while, my sister and her female friend overheard the girl say things like "I'm only 15", "I want to go home", "I want to go back to Texas", and the man say something like "the marriage has been arranged". The girl kept crying. So my sister and her friend got more and more concerned, but didn't feel like they understood what the relationships were or what was going on well enough, because they couldn't hear very clearly. The guy sitting with them finally asked what the heck they were whispering about, because he was completely oblivious. Midway through the meal their waiter was replaced by a waitress who asked them if something was wrong at the other table. My sister said they thought something was wrong but weren't sure. They kept talking and looking over, trying to catch the girl's eye, but couldn't.

Finally they got up to leave. Just outside the restaurant they decided for sure they had to call 911. While they were on the phone to the police, a producer walked up and told them they'd just been filmed for "What Would You Do?"! The producer interviewed them about what they'd seen and heard and why they didn't do something more direct while inside the restaurant. They also asked why the male companion hadn't noticed there was something wrong on his own. (My sister's theory was that she's a mom and that's why she was tuned in.) It turns out the waitress was an actress just like the "Mormon family". My sister told the producer they just weren't sure they wanted to confront the family directly so they stepped outside to call 911. Unfortunately the 911 call wasn't filmed.

Why unfortunately? Because now my sister is worried about how she'll be portrayed on the show, since they didn't cause a scene and "rescue" the girl themselves on camera. (They signed the releases letting the show use their footage.) And what's weird is my sister had wondered if something fake was going on. She'd watched the show the night before! Actually that experience contributed to her reaction in the sense there was no way she was going to do nothing, not if she was being watched. She likely would have done something anyway, but the whole situation was so weird, she wasn't totally buying it.

Anyway they were repeating the scenario all week so it will be interesting to see how it all turns out when it airs (in March I think). I have to say as a viewer I find such shows interesting, but if I didn't react in a TV-friendly way I'd be second-guessing myself too. And how stupid is that?

I don't know, it all feels very meta to me, but I can't express it very well. Maybe 'cause I'm a year older today. D'oh, more dead brain cells!


( 4 comments — Leave a comment )
Feb. 7th, 2009 12:36 am (UTC)
Oh, I watch that show all the time! It's...fascinating.

And is your sister sure the 911 call wasn't filmed? ABC alerts the police whenever they're doing these scenarios so they expect the "false alarm" calls (I always wonder how that works regarding the 911 system, but the insights into human behavior are so interesting). Sometimes it's not so much right or wrong, and sometimes it blatantly is. (And directly "rescuing" the girl may have been considered going too far as well, so hard to say). I think/hope your sister is portrayed well. I'll watch for it. (And yeah, even in or maybe because of it being in Vegas, she could be aware of a "tell?")

Was it the producer or was it John Cijones (Oh man, I have totally butchered that guys' name.

And they often get reports as to how many people are called. The producers/camera crew may have still been filming in a hidden camera.

Feb. 7th, 2009 02:13 am (UTC)
Hey there, yeah, the producer told my sister the 911 call wasn't filmed, but the description of it was in the interview, so... Her friend told the 911 operator "never mind, it's a tv show" and hung up so I don't know if the operator knew, but yeah, that point is interesting. It could be almost dangerous to the 911 system. The host wasn't there; it was a female producer. The crew was operating out of a big truck with NASCAR painted on the side. Nothing was as it seemed. :)

To me the baby in the car is more believable than a polygamist family, but yeah, maybe living in Vegas makes my sister more suspicious. :)
Feb. 7th, 2009 01:21 am (UTC)
I don't like the sound of that show, and I didn't before I read this entry--in fact, it's exactly the sort of thing I worry about.

When I was a grad student, a bunch of us TAs shared an office. I overheard this (and yes, I may be getting things wrong, both because I overheard it and because it was about 15 years ago). The psych grad students were talking about an incident, and what I reconstructed was this:

Psych students apparently signed releases when they took a psych course that they could be used for psych experiments without specific consent. One day the undergraduates were given an in-class exam, and the professor left the large hall during the exam. A student blatantly cheated, pulling out his book and obviously consulting it during the exam. No one stopped him. He put his exam on the desk before the professor came back and left. The professor came back, called time--and then told them it was an experiment to see what they'd do, and no one had done anything. The psych grad were laughing at the undergrads, who had signed an honor code pledging them to tell if anyone cheated, and they'd all blown it.

Except, of course, that the honor code does not require one to confront cheaters oneself, nor to announce them publicly. Every single student in that room could have meant to tell the professor privately, after everyone else had left, and no one would know.

I, of course, sat there silently in a corner of the room, pretty far from the talkers. I didn't know any of the psych grad students. They were unfairly judging the undergraduates, and I didn't say anything. I never signed any waiver, so at least I knew I wasn't the subject of an experiment--does that make it better or worse that I sat there and fumed on behalf of students I didn't even know? (Of course, for all I know, the psych students were just messing with me, but I never thought of that until today.)

I think your sister does risk being presented in a false light. I'd probably blunder in a situation like that myself. I have poor hearing, but I keep putting off the test that I fear will tell me I need a hearing aid. I have sometimes witnessed bad behavior (though nothing that bad) and been uncertain what I'd seen or heard, and so completely uncertain what to do.

Please do tell us, if they air it, if they include any footage of the 911 call, and what they say about the whole incident!

I think, by the way, that your sister was right: better to call outside the restaurant, so that the authorities might be able to find them, rather than confront them inside and have them leave before any authorities can do anything.
Feb. 7th, 2009 02:20 am (UTC)
That's a very interesting story and I completely agree, some of those students might very well have reported the cheating 10 mins later. Who wants to confront someone if there are authorities whose job it is to do it?

I think the show has to pick some pretty outrageous situations at this point. The abusive man thing they've done a dozen times already. I imagine the whole experience is pretty weird for the people involved, but perhaps for viewers it is instructive and prepares them for unexpected situations a bit better. Still, I'm not the type to confront strangers unless a life is at stake that very moment. Nor do I think 911 is the answer to every problem. :) So I'm not sure what I'd do either.

I'll post when I know the real airing date. For all I know she'll be edited out for being too boring.
( 4 comments — Leave a comment )