The Wave (2008) is a film based on the true story of a social experiment, “The Third Wave”, which took place in a high school in California in 1969. The film takes place in modern Germany and explains the origins of fascism. After watching the film, you realise how anything is possible in an unstable environment.
The story is about a school teacher, Rainer Wegner, who teaches autocracy for the school’s project week. Initially, students seem disinterested in the topic, lacking the motivation to learn more about The Third Reich and Nazism. Wenger asks his students, if a dictatorship like Hitler’s would be conceivable in modern Germany. Most of his students believed it was impossible. Therefore, instead of explaining and having students read about autocracy, he decided to take a different approach. He started an unorthodox social experiment to show them what it would be like to live in an autocracy.
First, they elected him as leader and day after day he introduces values and practices which an autocracy implements such as, “strength through discipline”, “strength through community…” His experiment quickly spirals out of control, growing into a movement called “The Wave” which has its own salute, uniform and rules.
So why are masses manipulated so easily into following an ideology which they do not imagine is possible?
Fundamental attribution error
The fundamental attribution error is when people attribute the behaviour of others to personality characteristics rather than to social situations (Gilbert & Malone, 1995). After the Second World War people started to acknowledge that individuals are often governed by accident, not intention (Gilbert & Malone, 1995). The film portrays this phenomenon when Wegner asks his students whether a dictatorship would be possible in today’s German society. Most students reacted by stating that “now we are far more educated”, viewing the possibility of history repeating itself as something which is impossible. It is common for people to think that they are immune to these mistakes as they believe they have already learnt the lesson. This is one of the main reasons why Dennis Gansel, the director, decided to make this film. He argues that we have the tendency to condemn others to justify the errors made in the past. However, despite students’ beliefs, they quickly start to imitate those same mistakes.
Obedience to authority
Wegner unintentionally is elected as the leader of his social experiment. As the new figure of authority, he has the power to make decisions, set rules and enforce obedience. He achieves this level of authority by demanding that his students treat him with a certain level of respect, addressing him as “Mr. Wegner” (Herr Wegner in German). Therefore, students start to comply with the rules he enforces in class. For example, students are only able to talk when Wegner gives them permission. He also instructs students to stand when they want to speak and to give short, direct answers. He imposes certain rules to teach students strength through discipline and the community.
From birth, children are taught that obedience to proper authority is right and misbehaviour is wrong (Cialdini, 2007). Therefore, it can cause people to disregard their personal conscience and abide by the rules. Research has demonstrated the power of authority and the alarming extent to which people comply even when it conflicts with their own values and morals. In Milgram’s (1963) study of obedience, the experimenter asked participants to administer an electric shock, which gradually increased in voltage every time the learner got an answer wrong. Participants were unaware that the learner was, in fact, a confederate. The results of the study are displayed in Table 2 below, showing that 65% of participants were willing to administer the highest shock level.
This study demonstrates that even when obedience is destructive, people still follow rules from an authority figure without considering the consequences of their actions. Similarly, in the film, members of The Wave start to behave in ways which go against their own conscience, beliefs, and thoughts. They start complying with his orders, issuing threats and using methods of force to get people to join. Wegner creates an environment where power emerges from the sense of community, and where individuals value conformity to the group over independent thinking.
The Wave began as a class project, but it soon spread through the entire school. Students were completely devoted to his experiment, suggesting additional rules they should follow to form part of The Wave. They established a uniform to eliminate class distinction, as well as, a salute and symbol to further unite as a group. Whereas in ordinary circumstances many students would have rejected these new social norms, under group pressure they decided to accept the majority’s judgement. This provides an example of conformity, whereby individuals adjust their beliefs, attitudes and behaviours in ways that are consistent with the norms of the group (Chartrand & Bargh, 1999). One of the main reasons people conform is because they have the desire to be accepted by the majority (Deutsch & Gerard, 1995). This is demonstrated in Asch’s (1955) study where participants were asked to decide which of the three lines had the same length as the standard line. All members of the group except one were confederates and were instructed beforehand to give wrong answers in most trials (Asch, 1955). The results show that when individuals perform this task independently they tend to be accurate almost all the time. Whereas in the presence of the group people conform on average one third of the time with the majority’s decision (Asch, 1955). Similarly, students conform to the social norms of The Wave, despite their beliefs, attitudes and behaviours being obviously wrong. Many of these students were previously bullied therefore, as they finally experience the power of belonging to a group they would rather conform than be excluded.
Gradually, students start to set their own values to one side, modifying their behaviour to become in line with the new identity they have adopted. This is a clear example of ‘Manded Altercast’, where you tell people who they are or are supposed to be by attributing a particular role or identity to them. Research shows that people will effortlessly conform to the social roles they are designated (Zimbardo, Maslach, & Haney, 2000). This is seen in the famous Stanford prison experiment where two groups of people were randomly assigned to the role of guard or prisoner and put into a prison-like environment (Haney, Banks, & Zimbardo, 1973). Due to the brutal behaviour on behalf of the guards the experiment was terminated after six days, although it was meant to last for two weeks. This experiment demonstrates how individuals can lose their sense of identity as they become completely immersed in the new role they adopt (Zimbardo, Maslach, & Haney, 2000). Likewise, The Wave becomes the students’ new identity, meaning that to be accepted they must now conform to the social norms that govern this group. Consequently, they start embracing anti-social behaviour: vandalising property, ostracizing and tormenting those who deviate from The Wave’s norms.
Watching this film, has shed a light on how easy it is for society to fall into fascism when it is presented in this way. Gansel, as many others, has acknowledged that human beings have the need to belong to a group and therefore he wanted to illustrate the alluring impact such a movement can have.
I highly recommend this film to those who might find this topic interesting or hold the same view as the students at the beginning of the film (if you do not mind subtitles).
Asch, S. E. (1955). Opinions and social pressure. Scientific American, 193, 31-35.
Cialdini, R. B. (2007). Influence: The psychology of persuasion. New York: Collins.
Chartrand, T. L., & Bargh, J. A. (1999). The chameleon effect: The perception-behaviour link and social interaction. Journal of Personality and Social Psychology, 76, 893-910.
Deutsch, M., & Gerard, H. B. (1955). A study of normative and informational social influences upon individual judgment. Journal of Abnormal and Social Psychology, 51, 629-636.
Gilbert, D. T., & Malone, P. S. (1995). The correspondence bias. Psychological Bulletin, 117, 21- 38.
Haney, C., Banks, W. C., & Zimbardo, P. G. (1973). A study of prisoners and guards in a simulated prison. Naval Research Reviews, 9, 1-17.
Milgram, S. (1963). Behavioural study of obedience. Journal of Abnormal and Social Psychology, 67, 371-378.
Zimbardo, P. G., Maslach, C., & Haney, C. (2000). Reflections on the Stanford prison experiment: Genesis, transformations, consequences. In T. Blass (Ed.), Obedience to authority: Current perspectives on the Milgram Paradigm (pp. 193-239). Mahwah, NJ: Lawrence Erlbaum Associates.