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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:

“This approach, developed at the RAND Corporation during the cold war, mixes the virtues of individual decision making with social learning. Individuals offer first-round estimates (or votes) in complete anonymity. Then a cycle of re-estimations (or repeated voting) occurs, with a requirement that second-round estimates have to fall within the middle quartiles (25%–75%) of the first round. This process is repeated—often interspersed with group discussion—until the participants converge on an estimate. A simple (and more easily administered) alternative is a system in which ultimate judgments or votes are given anonymously but only after deliberation. Anonymity insulates group members from reputational pressures and thus reduces the problem of self-silencing.”

One is left to wonder what might have happened if the ephor did not manipulate the voting method to push the Spartans toward war. Could the Peloponnesian War have been avoided? Or could the Spartans have bought more time and better prepared for the conflict with Athens? This vignette from Book 1 serves as a warning for leaders who attempt to make critical decisions based on the consensus of groups. Understanding these dynamics is the best way for leaders to safe guard against the pitfalls of group think.

5 Responses to “Thucydides Roundtable, Book I: How Group Dynamics Brought Sparta and Athens to War”

  1. Neville Morley Says:

    Interesting. It could be objected that Thucydides *doesn’t* say that Sthenelaidas changed the voting method in order to manipulate the result of the decision – T says that S claims that he can’t tell which shout is the louder, not that that he actually can’t tell – but that he did it in order to get the Spartans to own their decision. Possible contrast with some of the things that Athenian orators (e.g. Cleon) say about their own people, that they don’t take responsibility for what they decide but blame it all on their leaders? I do think you’re absolutely right that T is interested in processes of deliberation and decision-making, and why they frequently fail.

  2. zen Says:

    This is a good point Neville. However, Cleon was a breaker of rhetorical customs in the Assembly. He was the first (according to Thucydides) to engage in undignified dramatics to egg on the mob, something of which Thucydides disapproved. He seems to likewise disapprove of Sthenelaidas, having attributed a motive to his action. This may have been true or simply Thucydides assumption but Sthenelaidas short diatribe was more in keeping with Sparta’s “laconic” style than Archidamus’ reasoned advice

  3. Grurray Says:

    ‘Increase their ardor for war’ means manipulation any way you slice it, but in the Spartan police state that was probably seen as the standard way to do things. Considering all we know about Sparta, we would expect the Ephors and a few strong, well-positioned Whips (to use our modern term) in the room herding the rest into place. And as David pointed out in one of the other comments, the Spartans possessed a much more well defined social solidarity and unity that naturally brought them into alignment with the goals of their leaders.
    In some parts of Switzerland they have local councils with open votes of a show of hands or voice vote. It’s often been criticized over the years, but it has lasted the test of time. It could help that the people show up with their firearms, swords, bayonets, etc, so that might give them a sense of duty and empowerment. Or maybe that sense of duty in the first place compels them to show up armed to voice their opinion.

  4. Pauline Kaurin Says:

    Great piece. Do you see contemporary analogies? And what are they? I was thinking of the 2003 Iraq War but….

  5. T. Greer Says:

    Other option–it was useful to make the majority clear, for later on when the war got tough people would need to be reminded that the war was not forced upon Sparta by a war party, or anything of that sort. It did not just make the decision for war public, but also the commitment to the war public as well.

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