We need to rethink the misconstrued conclusions of social experimentation in the 20th century

Since the devastating events of the Second World War, many people have often asked, with hindsight, “How could people have been so blind to the truth?”. Several social experiments, such as The Third Wave Experiment, have taken place as an attempt to better understand the nature of tyranny and the conditions under which it comes to fruition.

Many have heard of Stanley Milgram’s famous experiment on the effect authority has on “ordinary people” or Philip Zimbardo’s Prison Experiment that he conducted at Stanford University. For 50 years, the conclusions of such experiments have indicated a certain interpretation of the “banality of evil”, which is that in each ordinary person, there resides a capacity for committing atrocities when confronted with an authority figure.

After the studies of Drs Alex Haslam and Steve Reicher, the common conclusions have been ditched, and Hannah Arendt’s words have been reanalyzed to provide a new conclusion to the causes and nature of tyranny and evil. Instead of simply summarising Haslam’s theory, however, it’s necessary to study his newer formulation of old conclusions to analyze a different, lesser-known social experiment called The Third Wave Experiment.

The Third Wave Experiment

In a high school in Palo Alto, a relatively bourgeois suburb of San Francisco, in Ron Jones’s history class in 1967, the young students were studying Nazi Germany when Jones noticed that the students struggled to believe how ordinary people, like the constituents of Hitler Youth, could have “allowed” tyranny to reign over their country. “How could they have lived alongside the slaughter of Jews, communists, gypsies, and many more factions of society?” they asked. Juden, Kommunisten, Zigeuner, Schwarze—there were labels for people according to what kind of offense or threat they posed to the regime so that everyone would know their place in society. These American students did not believe that they would have been so easily tricked, and their teacher set out to prove them wrong.

Controversial and unorthodox as the Third Wave Experiment might be, there is a lot we can take from social experiments such as these, especially amidst the disaster and upheaval we have witnessed so far in 2020. Such disaster and upheaval have led many social theorists to discuss and analyze our society and the system by which we are controlled and by which the powers that be reign over us, despite our struggles and protests.

Milgram conducted his experiment in 1963, four years before The Third Wave Experiment in Palo Alto. At that time, the Nazi regime was being widely studied, and the world asked itself how such atrocities could have occurred in so-called civilized states. Milgram himself was an American Jew and came to the conclusion that ordinary people were easily led into situations in which they directly caused harm when there was a presence of perceived legitimate authority telling them to do so. The subjects were told that they were taking part in a rare experiment studying education. They were asked to read out questions to a “student”, and whenever the student got a question wrong, the subjects were ordered to electrocute the student, increasing the force of the current gradually the more questions that they got wrong. The “student” was, in fact, an actor behind a screen in a different room who would plead and let out cries of pain as the fictional volts increased.

Ron Jones’s students didn’t know they were taking part in an attempt to show how they, too, could fall into step when a tyrannical authority was present. Jones began subtly to demonstrate how the population of Nazi Germany was manipulated into submission; it was a history lesson. The Third Wave Experiment took place over five school days. On the first day, the students acted almost as if it were a game and obeyed the commands of their teacher, who they already trusted and respected.

Instead of allowing them to call him Ron as usual, he insisted that they started to refer to him either as Mr. Jones or as Sir. The students obeyed. He gave them lessons in how to “sit correctly”, which they also obeyed with little persuasion after being told that sitting properly allowed more oxygen into the lungs, helping them to think more clearly and thus improve their grades. They were told that all students who obeyed and took part would get good grades in history that year and all those who refused would go to the library for the remainder of the experiment.

On the third day, Jones began to worry that things were going too far. Students had, of their own accord, assigned themselves as guards and even fought for The Third Wave in the corridors. Certain students had started a type of “Gestapo” and would tell on all those who were breaking the rules, mixing with students from other classes, or criticizing the “movement”. Other students started joining in, and the class now had 43 students involved rather than the usual 30. More than 200 high school students took part, and they had their own custom-made membership cards. In the documentary Lesson Plan, created by one of Jones’s former students in 2011, one interviewee said that students felt left out if they weren’t members and that everyone wanted to be involved. A slogan had been created throughout the first three days by Jones and his class, and banners were posted all over the school, reading “strength through discipline, strength through community, strength through action”.

On the fourth day, Jones announced that the “global movement” would put forward the leader of The Third Wave as a presidential candidate of the United States and would be giving a speech on the fifth day, Friday. A general assembly was organized for 12 pm the next day to watch the televised speech of their leader. Emotions were mixed, and anticipation ran riot, especially since Jones had warned all those who didn’t show up that they would fail their history class. The next day, the students assembled in a lecture room at midday. They waited. A television screen placed at the front of the room showed nothing but snow. They began to panic. They didn’t know where their teacher was, and the doors were guarded by militant student Gestapo. Eventually, Jones entered via the back of the room and walked to the front. The students chanted their slogan in anticipation. Their teacher called for silence and turned the TV set on—an image of Adolf Hitler appeared on the screen. Immediately the students realized what had happened, and some later attested to the fact that they cried. Some couldn’t even move from the shock. They had indeed fallen for the trap.

The Major Questions

The question here is not “why” but “how” the German people came to support the Nazi regime. The distinction is pertinent: “Why” implies necessity, whereas the question “how” implies not a necessity but rather “by what mechanism” the consequences came to be. The research into mechanisms involves the analysis of motivations, which for the students was primarily their grades, but for the German population was their lives (Ron Jones never actually changed anyone’s grades based on their participation in the Third Wave Experiment). The behavior of the Palo Alto students was so similar to that of the Hitler Youth that they had even created their own specific salute, which they would use in public and in the corridors of the school to identify one another. Motivations having been identified, it becomes easier to explain why tyrannical regimes can come to fruition and power.

In her book Eichmann in Jerusalem (1963), Hannah Arendt wrote about the apparent “normal” psychological behavior Adolf Eichmann demonstrated during his trial. The world misinterpreted her idea of the “banality of evil”; many believed that the phrase meant that within each of us, there is evil and that the Nazi criminals were “ordinary” people “simply following orders”. This conclusion falls flat on the hard ground, as many critics have concluded, including Arendt herself.

Following the analyses of Israeli-German historian Yaacov Lozowick, two British professors, Alex Haslam and Steve Reicher, have studied the experiments of Stanley Milgram and Philip Zimbardo. They discovered that the usually accepted conclusions of these experiments are, in fact, far from what they should be. For years after the second world war, when the world had time to reflect, we had taken the conclusions of these experiments and the words of Arendt to conclude that evil, in itself, is banal and can be found in the most ordinary of upstanding citizens. This is the wrong interpretation and the wrong conclusion to make. Evil is not banal, and it cannot be found everywhere, but it is made banal by those who refuse to admit that they have been the perpetrators and performers of evil. Heinlein said of humankind in 1953, “Man is not a rational animal; he is a rationalizing animal”. It follows that when someone has committed irrational acts—such as exterminating a large group of people according to their religion and/or genetics—they will endeavor to rationalize their actions using any excuse, thus rendering their actions “banal”, in their eyes “acceptable and understandable”. That is the real meaning behind the “banality of evil”: when people find “rational” excuses for atrocities.

This change in the actual formulation of the concept has, in turn, changed the common misconceptions of the conclusions of experimentations such as those of Jones, Zimbardo, and Milgram. For example, the theory that appeared after the Milgram experiment was that ordinary, good people, professionals, and students alike would obey authority to the point that it could kill someone (up to 450V of electrical current—far beyond that which can be sustained by a human being). Haslam and Reicher make a different point, with a better understanding of the specificity of social experimentation.

Evidently, experimentation in the social sciences is different. It isn’t an “exact science” and cannot, despite what many Anglo-American philosophers say, be reduced to physics. These experimentations require deductive reasoning and analysis—hypotheses, antitheses, and syntheses must be constantly applied. Many critics believe that the so-called “soft sciences” such as sociology cannot produce any accurate conclusions, but the thesis brought forward recently by Haslam, and Reicher is strong and has, with the help of other theorists, built a new attitude towards the conclusions arising from social experiments.

What Was Revealed

Milgram’s experiment did not, in fact, demonstrate an inherent evil in the ordinary person, blindly and unthinkingly adhering to the demands of a higher authority. On the contrary, they analyzed the very specifics of the experiment to come up with a more thorough hypothesis. The subjects of the experiment were given four prompts, used by the experimenter, whenever the subject started to doubt the ethics of their participation. Some subjects didn’t need all four prompts, but the great majority of them did.

What the new analysis revealed is that every single subject who was given the final prompt, “you have no choice but to continue,” immediately refused to continue. This last prompt was different from the others since it inferred obligation, which made the subjects rethink their actions and realize that they were not, in fact, obligated, and therefore they refused to continue. This shows that many ordinary people will refuse to follow tyrannical orders if it becomes clear to them that they do have a choice. The prompt was given in the imperative, but it highlighted that the imperative was literally lacking. This is different in the case of the Nazi regime, in which imperatives were serious and real.

Returning again to the experiment conducted at Cubberly High School in Palo Alto in 1967, we can start to use the newer analyses provided to reassess it. The high school was and still is one of the best in the state, well known for its progressive philosophy and intelligent students. Despite their protests against the idea that they would themselves be fooled by tyranny in the same way that Hitler Youth and the German people were, the students nevertheless fell for the experiment, and the authority of their tutor led them to fully believe in The Third Wave movement—despite the fact that it was completely made up.

In the beginning, the students treated the new “regime” as a game but became more serious once their teacher told them their marks were at stake. Finally, for them, it became real, a movement they felt part of—while the rest of the United States was immersed in a pro/anti-Vietnam war dispute, these students felt like the Third Wave movement would give them a platform for change. Only a small minority of students saw through the façade; they were named the “breakers” who tore down Third Wave posters and replaced them with counter-slogans.

Jones was a teacher who usually granted his students a lot of leeway. He normally let them call him “Ron”, and was much respected, charismatic, and popular. Ron Jones himself was, at the time, part of the Black Panther movement, which was a far-Left activist organization that was strongly opposed to the Vietnam War and the US government. Some would say he abused this confidence that the students had in him to play the tyrant, but, ultimately, he was still respected by the students and his colleagues even after the movement was exposed as a lie.

The factors that motivated the students then were: fear of losing marks, confidence and pride in their tutor, and a desire to be part of an exciting new movement that would change their world. Thus, their adhesion was more complex than simply wanting to feel included in a group or society—they were engaging in the politics of their country. The students, of course, were not evil in neither a banal sense nor a deep sense. They, in fact, believed in change but were easily indoctrinated—if only for those five days—by what they believed was a superior cause.

The tears that fell when they realized they had been so easily deceived were real, and it was a lesson that they didn’t forget, as documented in Lesson Plan. Jones was himself alarmed by how far his students took the movement to heart and how they orchestrated a group of guardians and SS-style spies to worm out the “traitors” to the movement.

Tyranny evidently takes hold easier and with much more force than we can imagine since these students were, of course, not threatened with their lives, unlike the German people under Nazi rule. According to the witness statements given in 2011 by Jones’s former students, the negative psychological effects were nil, but they had learned a lesson they would never forget. The goal of the experiment had thus been achieved.

Can Social Experimentation be Morally Tenable?

The ethical question that weighs heavy in the discussion is whether social experimentation can be morally tenable. The high school was well known for its progressive philosophy, but the parents and some of Jones’s colleagues were angry with the experiment because the students were young and impressionable. Jones was fired from teaching after a year-long discussion, but his work continues to be recognized and appreciated worldwide. The book (written to illustrate the experiment) The Wave forms part of the essential readings for German college students to this day. Some former students explain that their parents at the time didn’t talk about emotions and taught their children to respect the government and authorities, but that the Third Wave Experiment gave them a different point of view on blindly following orders and authorities—they appreciated the fact that they had been given the opportunity to see through their naivety. Would it not, then, have been more morally deplorable for a history tutor to accept the fact that his students were living in blissful ignorance?

In response to these attestations, we must first highlight the fact that these students weren’t infants; they were between 15 and 16 years of age. No psychological effects were reported, and his students even respected and revered him yet more for his unusual lesson—hence the documentary was made by two former classmates. Secondly, the ‘manipulation’ or deception of the students—as with the subjects in Milgram’s experiment—was necessary to produce the conditions conducive to an accurate depiction of reality and, ergo, the best conclusions.

The Hawthorne effect is often a problem found when considering both ethics and fallibility of social experimentation since the decision to tell the subjects of an experiment that they are being observed will inevitably lead them to change their behavior—knowing that one is being monitored changes one’s behavior significantly. To avoid the Hawthorne effect, Milgram told the volunteers that the subject was, in fact, the “learner” behind the screen and not themselves. This kind of lie has been criticized for being inherently unethical but is, in fact, the only way in which experimenters can ensure that their subjects are acting in an authentic way.

Returning once again to the analyses made by Haslam, we can formulize different conclusions to the Third Wave Experiment, which itself relates closely to other experiments and studies being made in the post-war years. Evil in itself is not banal, and evil acts do not necessarily have to be committed by evil people. Conditions that produce tyranny could be the presence of an apparently legitimate authority, a certain motivational interest, and/or threats and manipulation. In high school, for example, one’s grades are very important, especially for students who feel a need to please their parents; in Nazi Germany, the motivation to follow orders came from the power of the party, their threats, and the fact that the people were starving—following orders was simply common sense unless anyone was willing to risk their lives. The Nazis also hid many of their crimes from their own people, named themselves “national socialists” (when they were, in fact, not socialist but fascist), and managed to abolish unemployment (food was nevertheless lacking across the country, much like in Stalin’s Ukraine).

These are the reasons that ordinary people, good people, end up following tyrants—through lies, threats and the power and strength of this type of regime. Evil becomes banal when ordinary people don’t want to admit that they are implicated. Jones’s students regretted their having followed a tyrannical regime, even though it was fake, and the subjects of Milgram’s experiment followed orders because they perceived the experimenter as having some kind of legitimate authority.

Adolf Eichmann, however, was no ordinary man. On the contrary, he had not simply followed orders “blindly”; he had actually planned his actions in great detail—he was an author of the Holocaust. The authority of Ron Jones acted as a force, a power, similar to that of Eichmann, the difference being that Jones was not motivated by evil, but rather the opposite. The reproduction of a ‘tyrannical atmosphere’ was successful, even if it is not strictly possible to reproduce specifically all the conditions required within a historical setting. The deductions taken from such experiments are strong when they are seen alongside natural experiments, where the events have already occurred in history and have already provided a significant and real basis for the analysis of society.

The Legacy

To conclude, the Third Wave Experiment may have been unorthodox, but the Third Wave Experiment produced several insights and conclusions into the nature and mechanism of tyranny. Conclusions made by contemporary political scientists and sociologists reflect the experiences of the subjects of the Third Wave Experiment and make connections between those experiences and witness statements in history. It would not be possible to analyze such experiments without comparing them alongside one another since it takes a comparative study to come up with trustworthy explanations in the social sciences. The same can often be said in the natural sciences.

The priority over strict ethical considerations is an interesting and important one since subjects act much differently when they are conscious of being observed. Therefore, it becomes necessary in some cases to manipulate and monopolize people’s confidence. Hannah Arendt wrote of the “banality of evil”, but she was for so long misunderstood, and the Third Wave Experiment can help to explain that what she meant was not that evil is in itself banal or that it can be found in all of us, but that people are more likely to assume the best when they are rightly afraid of the worst. Ordinary people will rationalize rather than be rational when they are in a threatening or difficult situation in order to excuse themselves for being part of something that they fundamentally disagree with. Evil becomes banalized by human beings, but it is not in itself banal. In the case of war criminals such as Adolf Eichmann, he constructed no banal excuses for his actions and acted according to his own ideals and his own plans, according to those already set up by the Nazi regime.