Picking On Small Birds

When I was young, I thought that being ostracised was when you picked on someone because they were small (like a bird, see?). But it was only today that I came across the true origin of the word.

Back in the fifth century BC, Athenian democracy had a concept of Ostracism where the Greek citizenry could banish for 10 years a person that they didn’t like from society. Once a year, they’d have the option to do so by writing a name on a broken piece of pottery (ostracon, plural ostraka). Any individual who polled more than 6,000 votes was deemed the ‘winner’ and given 10 days to leave the city.

Seems pretty harsh by today’s standards – although preferable to the death sentences that weren’t uncommon back in those days. It doesn’t appear to have been invoked too frequently either (the last recorded incident involved the superbly-named Hyperbolus). Interestingly, it didn’t actually result in a loss of status or confiscation of assets for the individual either. They could return after a decade and pick up where they left off (in theory at least).

Which made me think: what if we still did this today? For politicians (albeit with a goalpost set higher than 6,000 votes I suspect….)? Work colleagues? Even extended family members?

It’s often said that you’re the average of the five people you spend the most time with. If you found yourself writing the name of a member of your inner sanctum on that piece of pottery, what impact would that have on your life?

How would you alter your daily behaviour if you knew these rules were in play? Would you (or could you) consistently modify the hundreds of daily interactions to minimise your chances of being the centre of attention on that single day each year?

I suspect our collective egos permit few of us think that we’d be the ones chosen. But then again most of us tend to ascribe success to our own abilities and efforts but ascribe failure to external factors (the self-serving bias).

Perhaps one impact might be to normalise some of the extremes of negative, emotional behaviour within society. I doubt it though. Most of us would find it hard to associate this distant result with their daily actions. I suspect actions would alter most markedly with the proximity of the vote.

Interestingly, this isn’t just some random ancient story from a past civilisation either. Ostracism remains alive and well in today’s society as we know. The effects might have changed but social psychologist Kipling Williams who specialises in the subject has pointed out that it finds its modern-day equivalent when we refuse to communicate with somebody – the so-called cyber-ostracism of ignoring emails.

Williams has done some interesting work in the area, including the Cyberball experiment. It’s an open-source ball toss game which involves three players who choose to throw a virtual ball randomly amongst each other on a screen. After a couple of minutes, two of the players throw it only to each other, excluding the third (the human). It’s shown that he or she then experiences feelings of rejection, anger and sadness – all despite knowing it’s a computer that’s ‘picking on them’.

So here’s a thought experiment: it’s real and voting starts tomorrow. What are you going to do?