Thucydides Roundtable, Book I: How Group Dynamics Brought Sparta and Athens to War

1GR-12-E1-B -------------------- D: -------------------- Das Zeitalter des Perikles / Foltz Perikles, athen. Politiker, um 500 v. Chr. - 429 v.Chr. - "Das Zeitalter des Perikles". - (Versammlung der bedeutendsten Kuenstler, Dichter und Philosophen der Zeit). Druck, spaetere Kolorierung, nach dem Gemaelde, 1852 ff., von Philipp von Foltz (1805-1877). -------------------- F: -------------------- L'epoque de Pericles / Foltz Pericles, homme politique athenien, vers 500 av. J.-C. - 429 av. J.-C. - "Das Zeitalter des Perikles" (L'epoque de Pericles). - (Rassemblement des artistes, poetes et philosophes les plus connus de l'epoque). Impr., coloriee post., d'ap. le tableau, 1852, de Philipp von Foltz (1805-1877).

[By Joe Byerly]

In Book 1 of The Landmark Thucydides the council of citizens in Sparta gather to hear the Corinthians, the Athenians, King Archidamus, and one of the ephors debate whether or not Sparta should go to war with Athens. It is within this scene that we witness a psychological phenomenon called “Group Think”; ultimately ending in a declaration of war.

After several of the sides had spoken their piece, the ephor, Sthenelaidas rose to address the group. He quickly dismissed the logical arguments of Archidamus, who thought that the decision to go to war should be deliberate and made only after the Spartans were better prepared to face the Athenians. Instead, Sthenelaidis appealed to the assembly’s emotions, calling for them to “Vote therefore, Spartans for war, as the honor of Sparta demands, and neither allow for further aggrandizement of Athens, nor betray our allies to ruin, but with the gods let us advance against the aggressors.”

To understand the significance of what happened next, we must first understand how the Spartans traditionally voted. In J.E. Lendon’s Song of Wrath: The Peloponnesian War Begins the author writes:

“For decisions on matters such as war and peace, Lycurgus had given the Spartan also an assembly of citizens, which voted not by show of hands as at Athens, but by shouting, and the presiding ephor decided which shout was louder.”

Instead of allowing the vote to take place in accordance with Spartan tradition, the ephor asked the crowd to divide. He pointed to a place in the assembly hall and asked all Spartans in favor of war to move to that spot. He then pointed out another location in the assembly hall, and asked those in favor of peace to move to that spot. Here is where the group gains power over the individual and in this instance drove the Spartans to war.

Research has shown that groups can impact individual decision-making when anonymity is reduced; which is what happened when the method of voting switched from yelling within a crowd to having the voters physically divide themselves. Thucydides believed that Sthenelaidas understood this because he writes that he switched the method of voting because, “he wished to make them declare their opinion openly and thus to increase their ardor for war.”

How could Spartans have potentially avoided the pitfalls of group think? In a 2014 Harvard Business Review article, authors Sunstein and Hastie recommend the Delphi Method:

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