Friday, October 14, 2011

The Third Wave

The Wave
Gustave Courbet

In 1967, at Cubberley High School in Palo Alto, California, a history teacher by the name of Ron Jones conducted a social experiment that became known as "The Third Wave". I had not heard about this experiment until a couple of days ago, when I saw the documentary entitled "Lesson Plan" on PBS. It was fascinating. During the experiment, Jones told his students that the movement aimed to eliminate democracy. Jones felt that democracy emphasizes individuality and therefore was a drawback to society as a whole.  He emphasized this by coining the motto: "Strength through discipline, strength through community, strength through action, strength through pride" and he had his students chant this over and over until they were indoctrinated.

The Stormy Sea
Gustave Courbet

The experiment began as an exercise in discipline, with the students being told to sit up straight, behave in an orderly fashion, and address the teacher as "Mr. Jones". He made up a salute, and students were ordered to salute each other even outside of class. Everyone complied. And then a strange thing happened; the experiment took on a life of its own, and students who were not in the class wanted to join. His classroom went from 30 students to 200, with standing room only. The students were issued a membership card, and some of the students elected themselves to be "police" or "informers". Mr. Jones was amazed to find that some of the students started reporting to him when other members of the movement failed to abide by the rules. Anyone who broke the rules, or spoke up and said, "This is wrong", were immediately banished to the library, and were shunned by their fellow classmates.

La falaise d'√Čtretat
Gustave Courbet

By the fourth day of the experiment, Mr. Jones was alarmed at how the students had become immersed in the experiment, and rather than thinking as individuals, they were thinking and acting only according to the rules of the community, with loyalty only to the group ~~ complete with discipline, a membership card and a salute.  Individuality disappeared.  But the really frightening thing was how many people wanted to join the group, and fights were breaking out all over the campus when folks disagreed with each other, so Mr. Jones terminated the experiment.  However, even today, when the students are interviewed, they remember the feelings they had of joining the group, and then being afraid to be individuals.  They were merely part of the whole, and once they were part of the whole, they were terrified of taking a wrong step and being banished.  Folks would say and do things they no longer believed, just to remain part of the group.

Beach in Normandy
Gustave Courbet

A year after the experiment, Mr. Jones was terminated from his employment, and he never taught again. But his experiment was successful in proving how peer pressure can be very similar to Nazi Germany, and that was the point of his experiment. The definition of peer pressure is: the influence exerted by a peer group in encouraging a person to change his or her attitudes, values, or behavior in order to conform to group norms. Social groups affected include membership groups, when the individual is "formally" a member (for example, political party, trade union), or a social clique. A person affected by peer pressure may or may not want to belong to these groups. They may also recognize dissociative groups with which they would not wish to associate, and thus they behave adversely concerning that group's behaviors.

Mr. Jones' experiment proved to be more enlightening than he first imagined.  It also proved that perfectly normal, reasonable people can get caught up in this mindset, and since we are all human, it can happen to any one of us, at any time.  The thing is to recognize it for what it is and to try to avoid it.  It's not always easy, though.


Linda Myers said...

Wow. But if you're part of "the boiled frog syndrome" you might not see it coming. If you put a frog in a pot of cold water and then heat the water slowly, the frog won't feel the changes. You can turn up the heat and cook the frog and he won't jump out of the pot.

Jo said...

Linda, yes, that is exactly right. And it can happen to anyone. Boiled frog syndrome. I like that...! It's very apt. :-)

Sextant said...

There was a experiment at conducted at Stanford in 1971 called the Stanford Prison Experiment. Volunteers were screened and some become prisoners and the others become guards. The experiment was supposed to last 2 weeks. It was cancelled after 6 days due to sadistic abuse by the guards which included the experimenter himself, and psychological stress to the prisoners. You can read about it here:

The Third Wave experiment is mentioned in this article. The thing that is frightening about these experiments is how easily and rapidly ordinary people will adapt and become cruelly authoritarian. It does not speak well for humanity.

Russell said...

I am reminded of a famous study conducted by Professor Stanley Milgram of Yale in 1961. Here is the link to a Wikipedia article on it:

We discussed this when I was in college and I have never forgotten it.

Long story somewhat short, people can do some terrible things to each other if they believe they are acting in response to authority and if the chain of events are broken into smaller pieces.

But your post about the experiment with the school children is very shocking (no pun intended ... see the article), too.

Bruce Coltin said...

Jo, this raises so many interesting questions that it could be the subject of ten blog posts.

For any group to grow and survive, members must sacrifice some amount of their individuality. And all groups (even if they deny it) become, to some extent, hierarchical.

The demonstrators in the Occupy movement have to take direction from leaders -- formal or informal -- and, for the demonstrations to work, some of them will have to abandon certain inclinations and conform to group behaviors.

Peer pressure can have a positive effect on individuals. If you are a student, and your group of friends are achievement orientated, you might study harder than you otherwise would to gain their approval.

Some big questions, I think, are: how and why do certain groups go beyond exclusivity and become malicious towards their own members and towards outsiders?

How and why do clubs turn into gangs?

Whitney Lee said...

This is fascinating. I agree with Bruce's questions as this post certainly raises some interesting ones. You hear so much about peer pressure in regards to children and teenagers in school but not nearly as often in regards to adults. This makes you realize that peer pressure is always an issue, perhaps not as prevalent as we age but still a factor as long as we remain part of society. I'm not very good at letting go of my individuality to conform-maybe that's why I'm not terribly popular with a large number of people?

PhilipH said...

What about masonic secret societies? These groups have some odd 'rules' so I understand. The members recognise each other by quirky signals and handshakes and it is commonly understood that it is against 'the rules' not to help a fellow mason. Many in high office are 'masons' - police, judges, politicians and others. I wonder how these 'societies' bend the rules of the REAL society?

Sextant said...

@Russell The Simpsons had a family therapy session that paralleled the Milgram experiment. You probably missed that episode. Haven't seen much of the Simpsons myself, since my son grew up and left.

@PhillipH Why do have black helicopters hovering over your house? Is that Predator I see banking off in the distance?

Jo said...

Sextant, I had heard of that experiment, and I was appalled. And it is very much a cross-section of human society. We do behave that way under certain circumstances, and it's frightening, isn't it?

Russell, I had not heard of that experiment, and I was shocked (no pun intended) to see that people could continue on hurting someone, and not even really know why they are doing, but simply because they were told to do it. I'm sure it must have been very much that way in Nazi Germany. It says a lot about human nature, and how maleable we really are as people.

Bruce, yes, it is a fascinating subject, isn't it? I find the current "occupy" movement a good example. They have now taken over Vancouver, although our economic situation is very different from the United States. People feel the need to "belong" to these organizations, and the group itself takes on a life of its own.

Whitney, I work in a work environment where there is a lot of peer pressure. It's almost psychopathic. It's like a living, breathing organism. Anyone who is the least bit "different" is culled from the pack, and becomes suspicious. It's scary at times.

Philip, yes, that's a good example ~~ secret societies. I have never been able to participate in anything like that, or any cults, etc., but they all work on the same principle, don't they? Ususally it's the principle of exclusion.

Jo said...

Sextant, LOL...!

the walking man said...

Interesting. People are on my ass because I refuse to be a part of Occupy Detroit, not that I don't agree with the premise that there is something not right in Whoville but now I am no longer a part of the "scene" ha ha ha

Same thinghappened when i was working as a union mechanic, i was kicking out the vehicles just as fast as i could because that was the pace I worked on my other job which paid commission. A bunch of them got right in my face..."You're making us look bad, slow down"

"no I don't think so, I don't have the ability to make you look bad only you can do that"

Interestingly enough a year later they elected me shop steward and their numbers had been steadily going up which actually gave us the upper hand. In short they all started thinking for themselves.

If someone try's to pressure me into anything my first thought is what is in it for them. That usually is the only question I need ask.

heartinsanfrancisco said...

The parallels between Jones' experiment and the Nazi phenomenon are unmistakable. I am as intellectually curious as the next bear, but I believe he was wrong to use impressionable teenagers at the time of their lives when they are normally struggling to figure out who they are and forge an identity while dealing with often cruel peer pressure, and consider it a serious error in judgment.

Sextant said...


If one is trying to research the plasticity of people to authoritarian organization, I can agree that the use of teenagers is ill advised. However, if you look at it from the teenagers point of view, what a valuable lesson. They got to see first hand how easily they could be snookered into an organization, a belief, and how such organization can lead to monstrous results. I would rather imagine that most of the participants in this benefited from the experiment.

PhilipH said...

I'll second that, HeartsinSan....

Paula Slade said...

Interesting experiment, which shows how cults take on and influence members. I like to refer to this behavior and mindset as the "lemming syndrome".

Jo said...

Mark, "no I don't think so, I don't have the ability to make you look bad only you can do that." That is so true...! I think sometimes when people get into groups, they rever to the lowest common denominator. That's why I could never belong to a group or a cult. Like you, I am to much of an individual.

Susan, yes, that's why Mr. Jones was fired. The students, though, did say that the lesson stayed with them, and made them realize the dangers of what they had been taught, and it formed their lives. But, yes, they were too young, at 17, for a lesson taught in that manner.

Sextant, yes, when I watched the interviews with the students, they all said it was a valuable lesson that had actually changed who they were as people, and they knew they could never repeat it. Interesting, hey?

Paula, oh, yes, cults use the very same type of brainwashing to initiate and indoctrinate their members. It's insidious!