Communication, Perception, and Power and Influence: Misuse of Organizational Behavior in Titicut Follies

            Titicut Follies (Wiseman, 1967) is an observational documentary which shows the mundane scenes of the interaction among the psychiatrists, guards, inmates, nurses, and social workers at Bridgewater State Hospital in the 1960s. The Bridgewater State Hospital functions as a prison for the mentally insane criminals whose activities are all under surveillance. The system normalizes their behavior to torture the inmates mentally and physically. Moreover, they find pleasure in being expected and encouraged to perform harmful tasks which mark their achievements in the professional career. In the prison culture shown at Bridgewater, scenes selected in this essay are examples of issues regarding communication, perception, and power and influence discussed in MGMT 320 Organizational Behavior. The interactions in Titicut Follies contain misuse of organizational behavior intended to build a healthy environment. In this case it only benefits those in power.

It has been a challenge to separate the concepts of communication, perception, and power and influence in the dialogues because they overlap and intertwine in the film. In terms of communication, “intimidation, threats, humiliation are proved to have negative mental impact on people. While it will create compliance, it generates low morale and absenteeism in an organization.” (Phillips and Gully, 2012) The hospital staff are given legitimate and expertise power and use the mechanism of fear to coerce the inmates to comply. Instead of helping them improve, the staff assert their power and influence by taking advantage of inmates’ vulnerability and punishing them. The staff also reinforce the stereotype that the inmates are insane and treat them impersonally. No matter how the inmates comply or resist, the guards and psychiatrists still perceive them as unreasonable and give them no chance for improvement.

In the first scene (35:25~40:13), Vladmir, an inmate who has been in the asylum for one and a half years, is negotiating with psychiatrist Dr. Ross a transfer to the prison where he was previously held. Devoid of position power, Vladmir uses the rational persuasion tactic to challenge Dr. Ross in that he does not believe keeping him in the hospital is helpful to his development. He would rather move back to Walpole Prison where there are more opportunities to improve himself. The staff at the Hospital use a mixture of authoritative and foul language in front of the inmates. In this case, Dr. Ross says “spit on my face” to convince Vladmir of his absolute expertise as a doctor and his determination to keep Vladmir in the Hospital.

When Vladmir insists on reiterating his opinion that he has been harmed in the Hospital, which challenges the position of experts at the Hospital, Dr. Ross tries to dismiss him and leave. Vladmir defends himself by saying that his schizophrenic paranoia does not make him dangerous. He casts doubt on the validity of the psychological testings on which the psychiatrists’ decision to keep him at the Bridgewater State Hospital is based. He reminds Dr. Ross of the questions on the test, which are “not the business of a doctor”, such as “Do you love your father/mother?”, “Do you believe in God?” and “How many times do you go to the toilet?” Dr. Ross then picks apart his words, and associates his going to the toilet with believing in God, trying to debunk his logic.

In this conversation, Dr. Ross and Vladmir both commit errors which generate unfavorable organizational behavior. Dr. Ross does not actively listen to or give direct responses to Vladmir. He constantly cuts off Vladmir’s arguments, looks away, laughs, and keeps using the toilet as a joke. As the receiver of the message, he purposefully blocks and distorts the intended meaning of Vladmi’s message. Vladmir becomes more anxious and stutters in the attempt to convince Dr. Ross, and as a result makes Dr. Ross feel offended. Vladmir complaint that he has been harmed during his stay at the Hospital , which only increases the tension. Vladmire’s overused rational persuasion tactic clearly does not work. His hand gestures show agitation and despair, which further sustain the psychiatrist’s impression of him as paranoid.

The second scene (1:00:36) takes place at a staff meeting, and again shows misuse of organizational behavior by Vladmir and another psychiatrist. Vladmir tries to prove his validity to leave the Hospital for the Prison, but is rebuffed by the psychiatrist. He uses rational persuasion every time the psychiatrist judges him based on surface-level characteristics. “If you don’t like my face, that has nothing to do with my mental stability,” Vladmir defends himself. He claims that other inmates hurt him, and that the environment is harmful and unhealthy based on the fact that other inmates often destroy everything after he finishes cleaning up. However, the psychiatrist, like Dr. Ross, looks away and laughs.

He is perceived to be mentally insane based on his style of communication. He gets emotional in reaction to the indifference of inmates and psychiatrists. The psychiatrists in the state facility have informational, expertise, and legitimate power to evaluate Vladmir’s emotional stability, to determine the amount of medications he should take, and to decide whether Vladmir is eligible to go back to the normal prison. Vladmir’s overused rational persuasion tactics have proven to be ineffective and create personally negative outcomes. It would be in his best interest to restrain his speech and manners in front of everyone, but Vladmir does not recognize that.

The psychiatrists and staff can only form impressions of Vladmir based on their interactions. First, the overgeneralized qualities of a schizophrenic paranoid, such as being irrational, illogical, and insane, frame their impression. Second, Vladmir’s attitudes and behaviors, in turn, offend the staff’s legitimacy and expertise in having ultimate control over his case. Despite his explanation, including that it is more reasonable for him to return to the other facility because there are self-improvement activities, the staff purposefully shun and ridicule his opinions. The more he explains, the more they loathe him. They commit the perception error of selective interpretation in that they only heed surface-level information, such as Vladmir’s agitation, impatience, fast speech, which reinforces the stereotype.

The staff meeting is obviously perfunctory. The psychiatrist does not even let Vladmir further explain by asking the guards to take him away. In the scene a nurse is smoking and watching him hallow-eyed without affection. She and other onlookers show boredom and impatience as he tells his story over and over again. The staff meeting reaches the result to prescribe him with more drugs and tranquilizers. It seems a rash decision devoid of empathy or responsibility to many spectators. Indeed, when the film was first viewed by outside audiences, the reaction was controversial. Bridgewater State Hospital went to court against Zapporah Films, which later limited screening to institutions in related fields (Grant, 2006), because the authority of the Hospital thought larger audiences would see them in a negative light.

The means of communication, perception, and assertion of power is used to negatively impact a certain population, in this case, the inmates. Supposing that there is hope for the staff and inmates’ interaction to improve, Vladmir should learn to effectively display his emotions because his strong emotionally-driven speech and body language have interrupted his ability to convince people and led to negative stereotyping of him as emotionally unstable. For those in power, instead of suppressing and ignoring inmates’ accounts, which creates fear and anger among the inmates, the staff should allow room for appropriate displays of emotions, actively listen to Vladmir, give timely feedback, and use nonverbal communication such as eye contact, leaning over, and clear language. In terms of using their legitimate and expertise power, they should provide more information on how they form their decision to avoid their decision being seen as arbitrary and unprofessional.


Works Cited

Grant, B. K. (2006). Five Films by Frederick Wiseman. Los Angeles: University of California Press.

Phillips & Gully. (2012). Organizational Behavior: Tools for Success, 2nd Edition.

Wiseman, Frederick. (1967). Titicut Follies



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