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The Wave that changed the world (2017) (paloaltoonline.com)
203 points by carrozo 11 days ago | hide | past | web | favorite | 65 comments

My Sociology teacher in high school did a much tamer version of this experiment when we were reading Lord of the Flies. As we read it chapter by chapter, he kept asking, "Does anyone believe in the Beast?" One kid finally said yes and he got all giddy, gave the kid a special seat by the front of the class and gave him a stuffed animal "beast" to hold.

As we read further and further he kept asking classmates? "Do you believe in the Beast?" He would give small things to the growing group, leave class 5 minutes early, some candy maybe, little things. But one by one the whole class joined the group, just as the true meaning of the Beast became apparent. Such an interesting lesson!

Personally, I've experienced a mix of extremes in both privilege and oppression.

While some people are really good, and some really evil, most of humanity has thos duality. They love you when you're successful, or for your popularity. But it's amazing how easily they can really turn their backs on you, even for no good reason.

There is an idea that: 'Nazis were regular people.' By some accounts the most common method of those millions who were murdered in the Killing Fields was by pick axe, to save bullets and money. The immediate reaction of that for me was the callousness, torture. But if you stop to think about it, how personal of a method is that? This was not just mass genocide, and it was not industrialized. It was carried out by masses of people with their own hands in a personalized way.

After my traumatic experiences with psychopathic cheating, abuse as an adult, now every time I hear or read of psychopathy happening today -- what is essentially just one group of people abusing, exploiting power over others for personal gain at the expense of others' liberties -- I think "Oh my God, we all need to wake up and do something." It feels like every day there is some new form of tyranny I learn about which is happening today, which is considered so ordinary that it is allowed to persist. Sometimes they are obvious evils, such as The Insulin Racket, Abu Ghraib or the Collateral Murder leaks, for example. But other times I see some of these group tyrannies have propaganda machine behind them which are not different from other forms of facism or tyrannical power structures, such as I think is the case with Big Pharma or Wall Street.

I think there is a crazy duality with humanity where we have abuse, tyranny always so close, and tolerated. We all know what it is -- that it is evil. We all hate it, and are ashamed of it. We always criticize it when it is at a distance, but then nobody is doing anything about it just as past generations did as well.

> We all hate it, and are ashamed of it. We always criticize it when it is at a distance, but then nobody is doing anything about it just as past generations did as well.

Standing up to tyranny requires critical mass. Even in moral opposition to tyranny it makes sense to wait until the right moment to take action as it needs to be powerful and coordinated. Someone has to be first taking a stand though in changing the world.

I would disagree and say that it's usually the individual dissenter who makes the biggest difference, and the ones who waited for the critical mass waited forever.

For sure the first dissenter makes the biggest difference, but only if they have a large following who already agrees with them and were just waiting for a spark. To dissent without a critical mass of support usually doesn't change much.

And then there's China and Hong Kong. Who will stand up?

Here's the teacher's riveting account, from 1972: http://libcom.org/history/the-third-wave-1967-account-ron-jo... (via https://news.ycombinator.com/item?id=2480260 from 2011, but only one comment there).

Here's the article from the school paper at the time, which includes details missing from the other articles, such as that the senior class staged a coup and kidnapped the teacher: https://imgur.com/t/nazism/hXgrmKX. The timeline disagrees with the other articles too.

Can anybody find a previous discussion of this on HN? "Wave" and "third wave" are such overloaded terms.

I suspect the story have been adjusted and embellished afterwards in order to clearer teach the lesson it was supposed to. The students staging a coup and kidnapping the teacher sounds like a fun bit of roleplay which perhaps got out of hand, but doesn't really support the lesson that we all are easy victims of fascism.

Some other comments suggest the episode was "hushed down" because they never heard about it. It might also be that it wasn't as big as dramatic an episode in the first place, as it was later presented.

I was wondering the same thing. The contemporaneous report seems unlikely to have made up such dramatic facts. I wonder if the documentary covers the 'coup'.

Milgram had people who refused to push the buttons, of course. And the Stanford Prison Experiment has been critiqued severely in the last few years, to the point of accusations of fraud.

There are a few links to the associated Wikipedia article, but only one with a comment: https://hn.algolia.com/?dateRange=all&query=%22third%20wave%...

The 1981 movie about the incident seems to be on Youtube, though: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=ICng-KRxXJ8

This is an instructive lesson for young people, but it's important to understand the context of Europe and Germany in the 1920s and 30s...

Embittered in the wake of the Great War, depleted by it and the reparations imposed by the Allies, battered by a global depression, facing Soviet expansionism, and struggling with a dysfunctional political culture.

It wasn't simply ideology that sold fascism in the real world.

Clearly the US had learned this lesson when Japan surrendered.

It's really strange to me that this story seems to be so unknown in the US. It's such an important and powerful lesson.

In contrast, I was educated in a European system, and in history class there was strong emphasis on the lessons of being subjected to or being on the brink of a fascist system. There are memorials to the Shoah and the Resistance in every town.

The US enjoyed the luxury of saying "it didn't happen here", but the education system at large really seems to have willfully ignored the lessons Europe has learned.

Hell, the movie about this was german!

The Stanford Prison Experiment and the Milgram experiments are well known in the US, and in the same space, so I don't think this generalization works. (Edit: Also the Asch conformity experiments.)

Edit: after reading the article, maybe there's a more interesting reason why this episode is less known: no one talked about it publicly for many years after it happened. "Silence is what happens when you feel shame."

Edit 2 — and then there's this: "I'm not proud of the Wave, and I don't want to see it repeated," said Jones, who has turned down inquiries about how to re-enact the Wave from everyone from cult leader Jim Jones to a British television company wanting to turn the experiment into a reality show. Say what? Jim Jones?

Edit 3: if the 1972 date on http://libcom.org/history/the-third-wave-1967-account-ron-jo... is accurate, then the OP is wrong that nobody talked about it publicly for over a decade.

I recall learning about this in high-school, which was in the Midwest in the early 1980's, so I don't know that it's as unknown in the U.S. as you say.

ah. I hadn't realized how much the participants themselves were quiet about it. Then it makes sense that it's not more well-known.

There is no “US educational system.” School policy is set at the state and local level.

I remember being taught this material and the book being assigned reading.

To be pedantic, OP included the words "at large". There is always a special case that counters the generalization, for example you being taught this material whilst your neighbor or coworker was not.

I went to public school in the US. We read the book _The Wave_ in 9th grade (possibly 8th, I don't really remember. It was early high school.) I don't remember ever discussing that it was based on a true event. I didn't learn that until much later. I feel like it would have had a much bugger impact if that fact had been included in the lesson.

There was an earlier, but seemingly less popular American TV movie: https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/The_Wave_(1981_film)

I remember watching that in my public school in Florida in the early 90s.

In Canada we had to read it and learned the story behind it in high school. I can't remember when exactly grade 9 or 10, but that was definitely one of the books we covered. Reading through the comments here I was surprised too to see so many people hadn't heard the story.

No kidding. I went to high school in the next town over and have never heard about this.

Not sure why you think this.

In New a Jersey back in 1986 my 6th grade class read the short story “The Wave”. We knew it was based on a real school event and talked about it afterwards. I think we might have even read it again in 8th grade. https://en.m.wikipedia.org/wiki/The_Wave_(novel)

This is the first time I've ever encountered this story, too. I went to Indiana school districts.

Please delete your troll.

Your biases are showing, and so is your ignorance.

I was explicitly taught this in high school, and your insistence that I wasn't grates. It's impossible to generalize the way you have for reasons you apparently fail to understand, but what's worse are your biases preventing you from realizing there even are things you don't understand. Truly, this is Dunning-Kruger on a grotesque level, given the subject matter.

Wow. In one short week this all happened and was defused by the teacher:

> There is no such thing as a national youth movement called the Third Wave. You have been used. Manipulated. Shoved by your own desires into the place you now find yourself. You are no better or worse than the German Nazis we have been studying


> Silence is what happens when you feel shame

What I find particularly interesting is that the basic elements of what happened can be seen in all walks of life, even in tech. Eg. The 'gamification' that many products use, is very much like the 'follow our rules and you'll be rewarded', and the 'belief' in a central tenant becomes a central rule of authority. The marketing slogans used to gain groundswell are the same: an agenda to deepen one's commitment to the cause.

Even HN, with it's karma, @dang as our bodyguard, with YC as the central body. All down and up votes on this comment will prove the point that the secret police are here too, gauging my suitability to the cause.

So, a fantastic article that shows we all have natural tendencies to be sheep, but are all also wanting to be elitist sheep.

> All down and up votes on this comment will prove the point that the secret police are here too, gauging my suitability to the cause.

Whats so easy to see in others is almost impossible to see in oneself.

I see this all the time when folks at work are trying to "fit in" and project the right signals up-ladder. They entertain ideas that if put forward by a peer would be ruthlessly ridiculed. They make inane jokes that we all uncomfortably laugh at, while they focus on non-problems and ignore unknown-knowns. I feel shame for putting up with those clumsy charades.

I have a feeling you mean that they ignore known unknowns. Everyone ignores unknown knowns, because they are unknown.

Please don't draw these kinds of false equivalences between normal behavior and authoritarianism, as it really muddies the waters and makes it easier for real authoritarians to take advantage. It's really unfair to compare dang to the secret police, when most of what he does is encourage polite debate. I've gotten real death threats from real fascists and I assure you HN mod staff are not fascists. (n.b. being intolerant of the intolerant is required for a tolerant society.)

Some of us have natural tendencies not to be sheep. I have walked out of rooms of twenty of my friends because what I thought they were doing was just going along with immoral cause. I've refused tasks at work because it wasn't appropriate. There are lots of artistic and revolutionary types, too. All it takes is standing up and a little guts.

I'd like to help you with your comment being grayed out, but excitingly, since a few weeks HN doesn't let me upvote comments anymore -- the vote button disappears and the unvote link appears, but the color doesn't budge, neither does the commenter karma. I can upvote stories just fine, but not comments. So, yeah.

Firstly, I have loads of respect for @dang and the community here. I think a slight misunderstanding occurred here. I made no claim to facist behaviours nor tendencies toward such: Just the claim that we all want to belong, that we all want to be seen, and that we also call others out for behaviour that doesn't match our view of the rules (such as this feedback).

I too walk away from immoral things... but that doesn't mean I'm not sheep like in other areas of my life (eg. blindly obeying a red traffic light when there's no one else on the road)

This is what the teacher was teaching the kids in the article: "You are no better or worse than the German Nazis we have been studying"

> blindly obeying a red traffic light when there's no one else on the road

It's funny how that is. I don't know anybody who would run a stale red light in the middle of the night when noone else is around, including me. I'm sure it happens, but I'm also sure that it's rare. In the West, we've been conditioned to blindly obey traffic signals.

On the other hand, most of us have stretched the yellow into the red. What's the difference there? Running a stale red is blatant, but running a fresh red is justifiable because "it's just a few seconds!".

> "What was interesting during the Wave was that the very bright kids were excluded and martialed out of the classroom by guards early on. That left the middle group, who then felt empowered. That's probably what's happening today in the United States. People who felt left out suddenly are in control, and it feels good.

The topic of resistance to mass totalitarian movements is more relevant now than ever before. The article, like history, unfortunately paints a very bleak picture for the prospects.

In the classroom study, as in historical episodes, the deck was stacked against resisters from the start. They got the same reward for going along as successfully revolting:

> ... "He [the teacher] told us, 'If you're an active participant, I'll give you an A; if you just go along with it, I'll give you a C; if you try a revolution, I'll give you an F, but if your revolution succeeds, I'll give you an A.'

In other words, resistance requires values that transcend immediate rewards and punishments. The path of greatest reward/effort lies in going along to get along, and most people will take it without thinking too much.

Beyond that, successful revolutionaries need a great deal of skill to avoid detection. The unskilled "bright" students were caught and banished early, and I don't doubt that those doing the banishing felt very good about that.

Only two students mounted a noteworthy resistance effort:

> Out of all the students, only two actively resisted -- sophomores Alyssa Hess and Sherry Tousley. On the final day, Hess stood up in class and urged her classmates not to attend the rally. Tousley resisted from the start. Tousley was one of Jones' top students who had been banished from class early on for questioning the movement's purpose. She anonymously launched an anti-Wave resistance group, "The Breakers." In the documentary "Lesson Plan," she said her father drove her to Cubberley before school hours so she could hang anti-Wave posters up high in the halls so students couldn't tear them down. Until the making of the documentary 40 years later, not a single person -- except her father -- knew Tousley was the sole person behind the resistance group.

Hess's stand at the end of class, although brave, had little effect. Worse, it couldn't be repeated. This is unfortunately the fate of most resisters because it takes a lot of skill to mess with the steamroller and survive.

Tousley's effort was much more interesting in that she was able to work on a recurring basis in a way that avoided detection.

> The topic of resistance to mass totalitarian movements is more relevant now than ever before.

Especially since we seem to have bimodal totalitarian impulses. Two opposing cultures, both of whom seem content primarily existing to reject the other.

I hope both cultures learn how to live with each other, tolerating dissent, before ignoring civil norms (i.e. escalating bigotry, violence) starts becoming attractive.

This must have been a strong ispiration for the aptly named "The Wave" (2008), although I couldn't find any reference either side.


The book is so well known in many countries as it's part of the standard curriculum (I had to read it when I was 16), so I think the German film makers felt it needed no particular references to the story. It's right next to Animal Farm, Brave New World, and 1984.

See also: https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/The_Wave_(2008_film)#Differenc...

Perhaps, Lord of The Flies is somewhere on that shelf, as well. Gosh I should go back and read all those again!

I thought everybody knew that the book the movie was based on was based on the story in the OP. We had to read the book in school (in Europe). I feel old now.

What is the bright side to community, order and the rest of it? Every ww2 and excessively tribal story ends badly and we need to be reminded of that.

But we always have moments in history when tribalism comes back and we will in the future. How can we use this to our advantage? Last time it came up we made some good advances in the understanding of human perception & consciousness. Can we use this power for good?

Every "excessively tribal story ends badly"...because we don't call it excessively tribal, if it ends well. If people come together to support a charitable cause or march for civil rights or resist invasion or something else we feel good about afterwards, we don't say it was a "tribal" impulse. But, if you had to rely solely on individualism to get any of those things to work, I suspect you would be very disappointed. We only call it blind obedience if it turns out the orders that were obeyed weren't good ideas.

It's somewhat similar to what gets called "populist" and what gets called "people power". If you think it was a bad idea, it looks like a mob. If you think it's a good idea, it looks like the people rising up to demand justice. The view from the middle of the crowd, at the time, may not be so different.

The good side of community, order and obedience to authority are the entire civilized world and all the goodies within it. Hospitals, electricity, cozy homes that stay cold in the summer and hot in the winter. Without the human tendency to group up and follow leaders nothing works and little gets done. Sometimes this habit goes wrong on us, and results in lynch mobs or Nazism. But overall it's still one of our greatest strengths as a species, and we need to be aware of its failure modes rather than rejecting the whole idea outright. Cooperation is one of the animal world's superpowers.

Everything you mention can be born out of individualism, not just by blind conformity and having any fixed social structure.

>>> Everything you mention can be born out of individualism, not just by blind conformity and having any fixed social structure.

Can it really? I feel like this would require further discussion and is not as obvious as you seem to think.

Individualism is a spirit that infects us all. It is invested in heavily by the rich and is heralded from the most credible academics and political leaders as the correct way to be or live.

Where is the line between the content of the idea individualism and the political reinforcement of the idea in the populace? It is apart of the fixed social structure already.

Is being governed by a shared idea, not blind conformity in itself?

Everything he mentioned is the result of many people working together. No hospital or electricity network were built by one person.

Capitalism is a great way to have people work in collaboration while still being motivated by their own individual goals.

The bright side of any community and even tribe is that if you happen to be the member of the community/tribe that “wins” at stuff (either through war, genocide, economic and cultural colonialism etc) then you’re going to have a more happy life compared to the isolated individual who isn’t part of any community/tribe and who doesn’t get to share the spoils. Of course, if you happen to be part of a “losing” community/tribe then things won’t be so bright for you, but in the end nobody cares about the “losers” (there are exceptions).

I'm intrigued by the fact that parents didn't get involved. In the early 70s my brother's social studies teacher must have heard about this guy because he did a similar thing in his classroom. As I remember it my mother flipped her shit and started making calls. She was having none of it.

The suprising part is that they apparently didn't spend any class time talking it over after it happened?

This talked like it is yesterday. It is now. I have the same question to china

and why even out of the totalitarian system and lived in USA those chinese student still work for and like a country that not allow this and that. No democracy. No google and all privacy. No individual. And have the-education camp. And of course forcing the whole HK to revolt.

Why the Chinese can live in china?

The third wave sounds pretty similar to the way schools (and many other organizations) often work anyway: strict enforcement of social status and arbitrary rules, strict codes for speech, dress, and behavior, encouragement of informers, public shaming and punishment, and an overall emphasis on groupthink and compliance.

There's even an exceptionally good German movie about this entire phenomenon (it was discovered first in Germany): Die Welle (The Wave)

For those interested, “Lesson Plan”, the documentary mentioned in the article, is streaming on Prime right now.


It’s a great story but it’s almost certainly too good to be true. There were a whole lot of things along this vein showing how good people can be manipulated to put innocent people into gas chambers as part of the restoration of Germany as part of the ‘free world’

The truth is that people aren’t good, and a lot of them would love to put people in gas chambers and all it takes is the people in power allowing them to do it. No manipulation required. The Nazis were not evil geniuses that figured out how to twist the good intentions of people into evil ends. They were brutal, moronic sociopaths that allowed the natural hateful tendencies of people to flourish.

It’s a dangerous myth to believe that democracy and freedom is the natural state of man and that chaos and destruction is the aberration. It’s precisely the opposite.

Democracy and peace and freedom are states that one has to continuously work for and make sacrifices to sustain. The us is learning that the hard way right now.

It doesn’t take a genius to destroy democracy. It just takes one hateful idiot in charge who allows and encourages hate and violence to flourish.

Well said. The "Human Animal" has a "dark side" which only needs a suitable environment where it is condoned without repercussions for it to flourish. In a small group (eg. a Village) since every person is personally identifiable these "animal" tendencies can be kept in check by a suitable environment. But in a larger group (eg. a City) because of the power of anonymity rules can be broken without repercussions. "Cyber Bullying" is another very good example. "Normal" people say the vilest of things due to the psychological distance involved and lack of personal repercussions on the Internet.

In a way, i think B.F.Skinner's "Behaviorism/Operant Conditioning" was exactly right as regards "Human Nature" but sadly people don't want to give up their utopian fancies.

> The truth is that people aren’t good, and a lot of them would love to put people in gas chambers and all it takes is the people in power allowing them to do it.

Is this a fact, or a theory?

If it's a fact, are you able to convince a very open minded person like me of it?

There are several decades of sociological research on similar topic.s If you are interested, the following book is a good introduction with extensive references: https://www.theauthoritarians.org/options-for-getting-the-bo...

One of the most startling relevations (to me) was that you don't need to be a "bad" person in order to do things one could consider immoral. All it takes is an immoral leader who is able to exploit certain personality traits and convictions that can be found in many of us.

Even though this text was written in 2005, it provides an explanatory framework for things that are more relevant today than ever. It's worth a read.


All you need to do is look at the horrors of various "Ethnic/Communal Cleansing/Riots" etc. in various countries across the world. Eg. 1) Ethnic cleansing during breakup of Yugoslavia 2) Communal Riots in some of the countries of South Asia etc. In many cases it was literally neighbour-vs-neighbour all because the environment changed to expose and sanction to act on various fault lines eg. ethnic/linguistic/religious etc.

That does seem fairly reasonable, thanks.

Even though the entirety of the stories are completely different, I couldn't help but start to picture scenes from The Dead Poet Society while reading the article.

How does it go? Oh captain, my captain?

Edit: PS: I did watch DPS in school in the US, but just heard of the third wave here today.


Would you please stop taking HN threads into ideological flamewar? It's off topic here.


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