What have the Romans ever done for us?
It’s maybe the most quoted line from Monty Python’s Life of Brian: “What have the Romans ever done for us?”. Reg, the leader of the People’s Front of Judea, asks it of his group to galvanise them into taking action against their oppressors.
The ridiculousness of the film’s dialogue, as the group details many of the things the Romans have brought to Judea, makes it abundantly clear that they’ve brought a lot of benefits, if only he’d take a minute to think about it.
Both in the original film and its common usage the question is a great satirical device. It questions the gut reaction, that the Romans have done nothing for us, and generates a more considered and deliberate response. I think we all know what it means when we hear that quote now: someone reels off a long list of benefits from a third party source and it’s almost obligatory to add “but what else have they done for us?” for emphasis.
These two ways of responding, the instinctive reaction and the considered response, fall into what can be called System 1 and System 2 thinking respectively. This is an idea introduced by Daniel Kahneman and explored in depth in his book Thinking Fast and Slow. There’s a lot of nuance, but you can pick up the general idea from just one sentence:
As with many things, the Monty Python team were well ahead of their time, because Reg’s question “What have the Roman’s ever done for us?”, intended rhetorically, is a perfect example of trying to apply System 1 (instinct) to a question that’s better answered by System 2 (deliberation).
The motivation behind asking the question comes entirely from dislike and resentment of Reg’s Roman overseers. It is speaking directly to System 1, aiming to prompt an emotional response. The question is unconsidered, and it expects the respondent to be unconsidered in their agreement that, yes, I hate the Romans too and no, they haven’t done anything for us; in fact quite the opposite.
Yet in the film, and in the way the question is generally invoked today, the answer isn’t a System 1 agreement, but a more considered System 2 response:
Which prompts Reg’s own System 2 into action because, yes, aqueducts are pretty useful:
“Oh. Yeah, yeah. They did give us that. Uh, that’s true. Yeah.”
“And the sanitation.”
“Oh, yeah, the sanitation, Reg. Remember what the city used to be like?”
“Yeah. All right. I’ll grant you the aqueduct and the sanitation are two things that the Romans have done.”
And so on, until it turns out that, actually, the Romans have done quite a lot for the Judean people, and System 1’s instinct was some way off the mark.
Yet, as is all too often the case when System 1 dominates System 2, it’s still not enough to overcome Reg’s gut feeling: he just plain hates the Romans:
“All right, but apart from the sanitation, the medicine, education, wine, public order, irrigation, roads, a fresh water system, and public health, what have the Romans ever done for us?”
“Oh. Peace? Shut up!”
Sadly, it’s a long proven phenomenon that you can’t change beliefs with facts alone, especially not when those beliefs are built on years of convention and peer reinforcement.
At Wagestream we encounter this when we explain that we give workers access to their earned money through income streaming. Common responses are “won’t that leave people short of money at the end of the month?” or simply (and vaguely) “isn’t that dangerous?”. The problem is that we’ve all become so conditioned to the monthly pay cycle that we’ve forgotten that most of us are almost always paid in arrears, long after we’ve done the work. (Or, as we at Wagestream often call it: late). It’s so ingrained in our working life that anything that challenges our belief is rejected by System 1 and, because we believe it so deeply, it takes more than a little evidence to change our minds.
Yet phrased differently, such as by pointing to employers that pay weekly, or suggesting that a labourer or freelancer is paid at the end of a day’s work, no such objections are raised. (Except perhaps from finance directors). Why shouldn’t someone be paid at the end of a day’s work? It’s only fair. Asking a labourer to wait a month for their money sounds borderline immoral.
So even when it comes to the pay cycle we need to ask our own version of the question: “What have the Romans ever done for us?”.
Rather than giving a response that talks about “the end of the month”, a response based on habit and convention, it’s worth engaging System 2 and giving it a little more consideration.
And even for the millions of employees still stuck on a monthly pay cycle, it turns out that apart from sanitation, the medicine, education, wine, public order, irrigation, roads, a fresh water system, and public health there is one more thing that the Romans did for us.
As far as I’m aware they never trialled income streaming, but they did take us one or two steps closer. Because if it hadn’t been for Julius Caesar and Augustus creating two new months, we might have had a mere ten paydays per year. Just think how much harder stretching money to “the end of the month” would be if that were still the case.
If you’re interested in income streaming for your organisation, get in touch.