Thucydides as a Prospect Theorist

in Polis: The Journal for Ancient Greek Political Thought
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Opposing the tendency to read Thucydides as a strong realist, committed to a theory of behaviour that assumes rationality as expected utility maximization, Ned Lebow and Clifford Orwin (among others) emphasize Thucydides’ attentiveness to deviations from rationality by individuals and states. This paper argues that Thucydides grasped the principles underlying contemporary prospect theory, which explains why people over-weight small probabilities and under-weight near certain ones. Thucydides offers salient examples of excessive risk-aversion in the face of probable gains and excessive risk-seeking by decision-makers faced with high probability losses. Thucydides suggests that in a democracy, leaders’ rhetoric can limit or exacerbate the political effects of bias in risk assessment.

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References

3

Orwin, The Humanity of Thucydides, pp. 10-11.

7

Orwin, The Humanity of Thucydides, p. 202.

8

Summed up, and refined in D. Kahneman, Thinking, Fast and Slow (New York: Farrar, Straus and Giroux, 2011).

9

R.N. Lebow, ‘Thucydides the Constructivist’, American Political Science Review, 95 (2001), pp. 547-60.

10

Lebow, ‘Thucydides the Constructivist’, p. 557; J.S. Levy, ‘An Introduction to Prospect Theory’, Political Psychology, 13 (1992): pp. 171-86; J.S. Levy, ‘Loss Aversion, Framing and Bargaining: The Implications of Prospect Theory for International Conflict’, International Political Science Review, 17 (1996), pp. 179-95; A. Tversky and D. Kahneman, ‘Advances in Prospect Theory: Cumulative Representation of Uncertainty’, Journal of Risk and Uncertainty, 5 (1992), pp. 297-323.

11

Kahnemam, Thinking, Fast and Slow, p. 300.

12

Kahnemam, Thinking, Fast and Slow, pp. 269-70; R.H. Thaler and C.R. Sunstein, Nudge: Improving Decisions about Health, Wealth, and Happiness (New Haven: Yale University Press, 2008).

14

Kahneman, Thinking, Fast and Slow, pp. 310-21.

16

Orwin, The Humanity of Thucydides, p. 204.

18

Orwin, The Humanity of Thucydides, pp. 110, 113-7.

19

Orwin, The Humanity of Thucydides, p. 116.

21

Kahneman, Thinking, Fast and Slow, pp. 310-21.

22

Kahneman, Thinking, Fast and Slow, pp. 318-9.

23

Cf. Orwin, The Humanity of Thucydides, pp. 97-8.

24

Kahneman, Thinking, Fast and Slow, p. 320.

25

Kahneman, Thinking, Fast and Slow, p. 315.

27

Orwin, The Humanity of Thucydides, pp. 111, 118; Desmond, ‘Lessons of Fear’, p. 366. L. Edmunds, Chance and Intelligence in Thucydides (Cambridge, Mass: Harvard University Press, 1975), p. 186.

29

Kahneman, Thinking, Fast and Slow, p. 317.

30

Cf. Orwin, The Humanity of Thucydides, pp. 118-9.

33

M.H. Hansen, The Athenian Democracy in the Age of Demosthenes: Structure, Principles and Ideology (Norman, Oklahoma: University of Oklahoma Press, 1999), pp. 205-218.

35

We differ with Orwin, The Humanity of Thucydides, pp. 32-37 and Appendix 2, in how to interpret the key phrase. Orwin translates prophasis as ‘allegation’ but we do not understand how something can be at once ‘alleged’ and yet ‘least expressed’ (aphanestatên logôi); it seems to us that an allegation is, by definition, expressed rather than hidden, whereas causes, including the truest, are sometimes most obscure. Moreover, at 1.88.1 (with Orwin p. 42), Thucydides in propria persona says that Spartan fear of Athens was their actual (not just declared) motive for declaring war.

36

Kahneman, Thinking, Fast and Slow, pp. 320-21.

39

Orwin, The Humanity of Thucydides, p. 28.

40

Edmunds, Chance and Intelligence, pp. 7-22, 205-214; Desmond, ‘Lessons of Fear’, pp. 371-3. We cannot discuss Edmunds’ comprehensive study on chance and planning in this paper, though it is important to note that Edmunds concludes that Thucydides, though close to Pericles, ultimately thought that chance can be overcome by rational planning only with the hindsight of a historian. Whether or not it is possible for a statesman or historian to completely eliminate the influence of chance, the main point remains: Thucydides thought it worthwhile for statesmen and leaders to invest in strategic planning in order to overcome uncertainties and Pericles is Thucydides’ prime example of the benefits of this effort.

42

Kahneman, Thinking, Fast and Slow, pp. 345-46.

43

On tragic realists, see R.N. Lebow, The Tragic Vision of Politics: Ethics, Interests and Orders (Cambridge and New York: Cambridge University Press, 2003).

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