Bread and circuses in USA today

Cheering Osama’s death, booing Charlie’s rants signal stressful time.

Posted May 10, 2011

The Romans knew a thing or two about how to manage a huge country. They were not too subtle about it, either. “Bread and circuses” was one of their political strategies—give the people food and entertainment, and you can count on their contentment and support. Hence the enormous Coliseum, the gladiator fights, and enough drama to make several actors into Hollywood leading men. Yep, we still like some bread and a circus or two to go with it. Human nature has not changed, not by much, since the Roman Empire. People still riot when there is no bread, and they still enjoy the simplicity and safety of a good show. And no time is as ripe for this ancient combination as a stressful time.

Psychologist Stewart McCann discovered an interesting trend in American church memberships. Looking at some more conservative churches, like the Southern Baptist Convention, he found that some years the Baptists saw a significant increase in membership, while at other times the membership waned. The same was true of some more relaxed, “liberal” churches, like the United Methodist Church. But the interesting thing was that the waxing and waning in the two kinds of churches happened at different times. The years when the more conservative churches enjoyed an inflow of new members, the more liberal churches saw a decline in membership.

McCann enlisted historians to analyze each year between 1929 and 1986 with respect to economic, political and social threats to America. When these ratings were made, he found another interesting thing: what predicted an inflow of members to conservative churches was the same thing that predicted drop-out from liberal churches, and that predictor was stressful times. In years of peace and prosperity, people flocked to more liberal churches. But when the economy was bad, or the country faced a political threat or social unrest, people went to more conservative churches.

Later McCann discovered a number of other interesting trends that fluctuated with the stressfulness of historical period. Thus, during stressful times, juries were more likely to impose the death sentence than in easy times. Charismatic presidents won more often, and with a greater margin, during stressful than during peaceful times.

One way to interpret these results is that, in stressful times, people seek simplicity and avoid complexity. An authoritative church offers a black and white worldview, with clear prescriptions for actions and attitudes. A liberal church, by contrast, leaves a lot of room for thought and weighing of options, something that is not as appealing when times are hard. The same preference for simplicity can explain why death sentencing is on the rise—bad guys don’t deserve to live, plain and simple. Preference for simplicity may also explain why charismatic presidents are more likely to be elected, and with a greater margin—simplicity means following a leader, and a charismatic leader makes a strong emotional appeal, leaving less room for complicated musings.

Preference for simplicity in times of stress is supported by research. For example, when stressed, people are more likely to resort to the simplicity of stereotypes when judging someone than to consider the person’s individual qualities. Also, under stress people are more likely to attend to “peripheral cues” of communications, paying less attention to the content of the message and more attention to the authority of the messenger or popularity of the message. Preference for simplicity in times of stress is not surprising, given that stress interferes with cognitive function, and prolonged stress seems to physically alter the brain, causing cognitive deficits. Stress makes it harder to think complexly, and so we begin to use rules of thumb and take mental shortcuts in situations that otherwise would have us reflecting deeply.

In the past month serious news outlets, including the NPR, CNN, and The New Yorker have questioned why Americans reacted so strongly to the personal problems of Charlie Sheen, and then to the news of Bin Laden’s death. The first one is a washed-out Hollywood drug addict who seemed to have gone crazy. The second is a washed-out radical Islam demagogue who failed to predict, lead or even be relevant in the biggest events of the Islamic world of the past few centuries—the Arab Spring. Yet millions of people watched Charlie’s crazy rants on YouTube, and bought tabloid magazines to read about his latest spectacular fall on his face. And thousands came out to the streets to celebrate, in the manner of a street festival, a death that was mostly a symbolic victory for the U.S.

Osama Bin Laden

Charlie Sheen via Webcam

Perhaps the Romans had the answer: Bread and Circuses. Times are stressful. We are in an economic recession, fighting three wars, and facing the threat of domestic and foreign terrorism. Our political, economic and military influence in the world is increasingly brought into question. Our children are not getting a good education, and we are putting their tuition into our gas tank.  We want a little relief: a coliseum-style circus (thank you Charlie Sheen), and a little simplicity: a bad guy who did not deserve to live (thank you Seal Team Six).

When the bad times are behind us, when the unemployment, the national debt, the terrorist threat are down, and our national mood is up, we’ll have a more graduated perspective. But for right now, a little bread and circuses feels good.