Find over 25,000 psychological definitions

The Third Wave (experiment)

The Third Wave was an experimental social movement created by California high school history teacher Ron Jones in 1967 to explain how the German population could accept the actions of the Nazi regime during the Second World War. While he taught his students about Nazi Germany during his "Contemporary World History" class, Jones found it difficult to explain how the German people could accept the actions of the Nazis, and decided to create a social movement as a demonstration of the appeal of fascism. Over the course of five days, Jones – a member of the SDS, Cubberley United Student Movement sponsor and Black Panthers supporter – conducted a series of exercises in his classroom emphasizing discipline and community, intended to model certain characteristics of the Nazi movement. As the movement grew outside his class and began to number in the hundreds, Jones began to feel that the movement had spiraled out of control. He convinced the students to attend a rally where he claimed that the classroom project was part of a nationwide movement, and that the announcement of a Third Wave presidential candidate would be televised. Upon their arrival, the students were presented with a blank channel. Jones told his students of the true nature of the movement as an experiment in fascism, and presented to them a short film discussing the actions of Nazi Germany.

Background to the Third Wave experiment

The experiment took place at Cubberley High School in Palo Alto, California, during the first week of April 1967.[1] Jones, finding himself unable to explain to his students how the German population could have claimed ignorance of The Holocaust, decided to demonstrate it to them instead. Jones started a movement called "The Third Wave" and told his students that the movement aimed to eliminate democracy. The idea that democracy emphasises individuality was considered as a drawback, and Jones emphasised this main point of the movement in its motto: "Strength through discipline, strength through community, strength through action, strength through pride."The experiment was not well documented at the time. Of contemporary sources, the experiment is only mentioned in the Cubberley High School student newspaper, The Cubberley Catamount. It is only briefly mentioned in two issues, and one more issue of the paper has a longer article about this experiment at its conclusion. Jones himself wrote a detailed account of the experiment some nine years afterward and more articles about the experiment followed, including some interviews with Jones and the original students.


First day

Ron Jones writes that he started the first day of the experiment with simple things such as proper seating and extensively drilling the students (who were in their senior year of school). He then proceeded to enforce strict classroom discipline by emerging as an authoritarian figure and dramatically improving the efficiency of the class.
The first day's session was closed with only a few rules, being rather simple and intending to be a one-day experiment. Students had to be sitting at attention before the second bell, had to stand up to ask or answer questions and had to do it in three words or fewer, and were required to preface each remark with "Mr. Jones".

Second day

On the second day, he managed to meld his history class into a group with a supreme sense of discipline and community. Jones based the name of his movement, "The Third Wave", on the supposed fact that the third in a series of waves is the strongest. Jones created a salute involving a cupped hand reaching across the chest toward the opposite shoulder resembling a Hitler salute, and ordered class members to salute each other even outside the class. They all complied with this command.

Third day

The experiment took on a life of its own, with students from all over the school joining in: some students who did not take the history class but had a free period decided to join the class. On the third day, the class expanded from initial 30 students to 43 attendees. All of the students showed drastic improvement in their academic skills and tremendous motivation. All of the students were issued a member card, and each of them received a special assignment, like designing a Third Wave Banner, stopping non-members from entering the class, or the like. Jones instructed the students on how to initiate new members, and by the end of the day the movement had over 200 participants. Jones was surprised that some of the students started reporting to him when other members of the movement failed to abide by the rules.

Fourth day

On the fourth day of the experiment, Jones decided to terminate the movement because it was slipping out of his control. The students became increasingly involved in the project and their discipline and loyalty to the project was outstanding. He announced to the participants that this movement was a part of a nationwide movement and that on the next day a presidential candidate of the Third Wave would publicly announce its existence. Jones ordered students to attend a noon rally on Friday to witness the announcement.

Fifth and last day

Instead of a televised address of their leader, the students were presented with an empty channel. After a few minutes of waiting, Jones announced that they had been a part of an experiment in fascism and that they all willingly created a sense of superiority like German citizens had in the period of Nazi Germany. He then played them a film about the Nazi regime to conclude the experiment.


On October 10, 2010, the documentary, Lesson Plan, which retold the story of the Third Wave through interviews with the original students and teacher, debuted at the Mill Valley Film Festival. It was produced by Philip Neel, one of Jones's own former students.


The events of the experiment were adapted into a 1981 US TV special, The Wave. This formed the basis for the Young Adult novelization of the same name by Todd Strasser, who conducted the story of the Third Wave into a modern time period, who used the pen name Morton Rhue in Europe.
It Can't Happen Here, the 86th book in the Sweet Valley Twins series, features a substitute teacher who conducts an experiment very similar in nature to The Third Wave.
In 2001, a musical adaptation written by Olaf Pyttlik premiered at the Royal Manitoba Theatre Centre in Canada.
The 2008 German film Die Welle transferred the experiment to a modern-day German classroom. The film received critical acclaim.
"The Pride of Lakewood", a 2010 episode of children's animated series Arthur, was loosely based on the Third Wave experiment. In it, students who form a community pride group become fascistic.
In 2010, Jones staged a musical called The Wave, written with some of the students in the class.
The events were adapted into a straight play version in 2011 by Joseph Robinette and Ron Jones.

Posted on Oct 16, 2021.

Psychology term of the day

October 17th 2021

positive symptoms

behavioursrelated to a mental disorder which do not occur in healthy persons; for example, hallucinations in schizophrenia.