Practical insights for compliance and ethics professionals and commentary on the intersection of compliance and culture.

Compliance and ethics in Groundhog Day

Groundhog Day is a classic comedy film from 1993.  The movie centers around Bill Murray’s character Phil Connors, who is a weatherman on-location in Punxsutawney, Pennsylvania covering the annual Groundhog Day event there.  The town’s festivities around the ritual of the groundhog coming out of his hole to check whether or not he sees his shadow are a huge media event and popular celebration which Connors, who is generally obnoxious and condescending, finds ridiculous.  On February 2, Connors has an unpleasant and miserable day in which he is annoyed by everyone around him, acts out, and totally fails to charm his producer Rita Hanson, played by Andie McDowell, with whom he is in unrequited love.  The next day he wakes up and is alarmed and confused to find that it is not a new day and February 3, but rather it is February 2 again and the prior day is repeating exactly as it happened before.

Connors winds up trapped in a time loop in which only he is lucid of it.  He experiences February 2 over and over, with his memory and knowledge retained but otherwise no evidence in the world or other people that the day has happened before and will happen again.  Connors goes through a complicated process of reckoning with this reality and ultimately makes an ambition of getting Hanson, who hates him, to fall in love with him.

Through his efforts to accomplish this goal and in hopes of escaping the time loop to see February 3 finally, Connors finds that all of his views towards life and other people dramatically change.   In this process, there are many interesting issues for compliance and ethics invoked, both in his shifting values and his methods for coping with his predicament.

  • Ethics and consequences – At first when Connors becomes aware that February 2 is repeating over and over with no sign of any of his actions in any prior iteration of the day remembered, he takes delight in misbehaving and doing negligent and dangerous things. Connors is experiencing life without consequences and rejects any kind of ethical code or internal moral register to govern this.  Eventually, however, this reckless approach depresses Connors horribly and leads him to attempt suicide numerous times (which is not possible to do successfully within the time loop) and adopt a nihilistic view of life.  Finally, Connors realizes that even without immediate consequences to impact his decision-making, he must live his life in order to better himself and those around him in order to go on.
  • Moral code – The above realization leads Connors on an exciting adventure where he learns useful skills, adopts enriching hobbies, forms meaningful relationships, protects others, and contributes to the Punxsutawney community. Connors has learned an important moral lesson, which is that ethical behavior does not need to be determined by external forces (such as consequences or rules and regulations) but rather should be determined by internal values and commitments to them.
  • Deep/machine learning – While he is stuck in the time loop, Connors closely studies Hanson, the people he regularly encounters in restaurants and on the street, and even the most minute details and occurrences of the day. At first this is a way for him to pass the time while stuck in the loop, but eventually Connors begins to remember details and attempt to learn things via repetition thanks to his retained memories.  Connors is practising a facsimile of the methods that are now used by deep or machine learning in order to impart artificial intelligence to computers and other machines/devices.  If Groundhog Day was set in 2018, Connors would definitely have a chatbot, virtual assistant, or some other AI-guided device to aid him in his knowledge acquisition process.  In the 1993 world of the movie, however, he accomplishes this learning by simply enduring the endless time loops of February 2 by being productive and devoting himself to his lessons at the piano, ice sculpting, and French language.  He does this also in his interactions with other people, where he intentionally learns things about them over the course of repeated days and then uses those facts to social engineer relationships and situations with them.
  • Privacy – As Connors uses data he collects about those around him to cope with the time loop by getting to know and help people, he invokes some pretty concerning issues with privacy and data security. While Connors has positive intentions in doing this, it is still an encroachment upon their private lives.  Connors ultimately behaves himself with the information he gathers, but his conduct is ripe for a confidence scam or other fraudulent actions, plus the possible misuse or abuse of the information he gathers.  Individuals should have an absolute right to their privacy and to have non-deceptive relationships and interactions with others that don’t rely upon the use of ill-begotten and manipulated personal information.  Just as consequences are not necessary for moral behavior, good intentions are also not an absolute defense to misconduct or its secondary ramifications.
  • Truth and honesty in society – In an extension to the issues with privacy, Connors’ behavior in Groundhog Day, while well-intentioned, is a challenge to standards for trustworthiness and credibility. Long before the era of “fake news” and “alternative facts,” Connors still takes advantage of the time loop to steer reality his preferred way; in fact, he must do this in order to get out of the time loop and go on with his life past February 2.  Perhaps it is a cynical perspective, but life after the time loop is all based on the false pretense of the privacy intrusions, social engineering, and immoral or negligent behavior (which Connors remembers and knows about even if no one else does) which got them there.  Even if Connors eventually confesses to his misconduct, truth and honesty have been impaired from the start.

Groundhog Day offers a funny and practical view on how people’s values may be impacted by their circumstances and indeed how those values may be able to change and improve those circumstances.  Both in the universe of the movie and in today’s world with its extra technological innovations and complicated image of truth and honesty, Groundhog Day is a great example of compliance and ethics in popular culture.


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