Archive | October 2014

Common Sense Writ Large

In general, “hard” sciences enjoy more credibility than social sciences. Indeed, plenty of hard scientists have scoffed at how social sciences are conducted. Yet, when hard scientists tackle social problems, they get bogged down just as easily as the next social scientist. So, it is all the more heartening to read Everything Is Obvious: How common sense fails us, for its author, Duncan J. Watts, earned his first PhD in math and engineering before earning a second PhD in sociology.

The book is relatively easy to read. It explains clearly how our reliance on common sense has lead us astray as often as it has served us faithfully. The book offers us a few rigorous principles with which to “read” social issues. There are plenty of nuggets for readers to contemplate and reflect creepers

As I mentioned in the previous post, common sense has its greatest use in handling our daily life conundrums, but produces layer upon layer of problems when we apply it to larger issues. Common sense also skews our view when we impose it on a time scale, looking back at some big events. As Watts explains, a historical event happened only once. We can’t know exactly why and how it happened. We are good at identifying multiple possible factors causing the event, but we are lousy when it comes to identifying how each factor weighs against the others. Yet we think we’re good at it. His example of Mona Lisa is fascinating reading. Da Vinci couldn’t have known that he was going to paint a world-famous portrait of a woman; his model never even set her eyes on the final product. Da Vinci only finished the painting years later, under a different patronage in a different city. The painting was initially well received, but became famous only after (and quite likely because) a couple of well-publicized thefts put it on the world map. While many “experts” have claimed the painting possesses qualities that sound lofty, these “analyses” generally reflect more about “experts’” professional training than about the Mona Lisa. We lay people have gone along without knowing exactly why the Mona Lisa is so special. Or, I can mouth off others’ analyses, but do I really know?

On the other hand, no expertise is required for most of us to enjoy the Harry Potter series. Why is “Harry Potter” so popular? No matter what wonderful adjectives you give to the series – and we can all come up with brilliant points — remember the author, J. K. Rowling, had numerous rejects before a publisher gave a tentative printing of the first book. All the remarkable attributes we ascribe to Rowling and her work, i.e. Rowling’s writing skills, story construction, imagination, etc., existed from the start yet no publisher was sure that a hit was on the horizon. Put it in another way, if we apply the same set of adjectives (whatever you choose) to another person, would that person produce another “Harry Potter?”

little redWe are good at retroactive rationalization, or “creeping determinism” in psychology terms. As Watts explains, “Creeping determinism…is even more deceptive [than hindsight bias]. Hindsight bias…can be counteracted by reminding people of what they said before they knew the answer or by forcing them to keep records of their predictions. But even when we recall perfectly accurately how uncertain we were about the way events would transpire – even when we concede to have been caught completely by surprise – we still have a tendency to treat the realized outcome as inevitable (emphasis mine).” Another example is the surge in the second Iraq war. Of course, most military strategists would claim that the surge was necessary, but nobody including military leaders could have known how the surge would turn out. Neither could we do an experiment on the ground to test the viability of the “surge” strategy — surge in one area and no surge in others, assuming all things being equal. There were many factors that could have – and at lease some must have had – made contributions to the reduction of violence, but owing to the timing many people insisted that the surge was the reason for the reduction of violence. We could identify many factors, but we couldn’t be sure how each factor really impacted the outcome. However, “we still believe that it [the drop of violence] was going to happen, because it did.” (emphasis Watts’)

So, we continue to rely on “common sense” for making decisions, even those that would have national-scale or international-scale effects. As I mentioned before, practicing “commonsense” thinking on a large scale, especially regarding social issues, can lead to many unintended and unfortunate consequences, regardless of political affiliations. Foreign aid leads to more problems that need more aid. Or, building big housing projects to help the poor and finding the areas often become “centers of delinquency, vandalism, and general social hopelessness [even more] than the slums they were supposed to replace.” But before anyone sneers at these “government interventions,” and gives too much credit to corporations and markets, may I point out the long list of private sector debacles, such as The Great Depression, “savings & loans crisis,” and the 2008 global financial meltdown?

Watts asserts that private corporations are never as big as governments, and so are not likely to attract the same level of attention and scrutiny. Conversely, since there are many more corporations than governments, we should expect to find more success stories among private industries. This creates the illusory commonsense conclusion that government is the problem and private companies are more efficient and effective. Furthermore, studies have shown, again and again, that corporate plans (be it strategic, marketing, or mergers and acquisitions) fail frequently, except we don’t hear about such failure very often, and businesses keep practicing the same things.autumn leaves

Let me reiterate, common sense is useful for individuals to navigate everyday life and deal with the “here and now.” It only becomes an obstacle and a cause for unintended problems when we rely on it for larger scale issues and operations, at both government and private industry levels.

Next time, I’ll offer some of Watts’ antidotes to “common sense.” Till then,


Staying Sane and Charging Ahead.

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Is Common Sense Truly Sensible?

Maybe, it depends. (I am, after all, a social scientist through and through.)

Around WWII, the War Department collected data on 600,000 servicemen. What would be your reaction to this statement: “Men from rural backgrounds were usually in better spirits during their Army life than soldiers from city backgrounds?” Most of us would probably agree, “Of course, given the era, people from rural backgrounds were more familiar with harsher living conditions and would handle tough life better.” However, wouldn’t it be equally sensible to think, City folks, being more “accustomed to crowds, to working in organizational chain of command, and to the strict dress code [of the time]” would be more accepting of Army ways? So, which one would you say is more obvious and common-sense? City folks or rural workers? The actual answer was city folks.

However tasty it is, you don't eat up the whole cake in one day.

However tasty it is, you don’t eat up the whole cake in one day.

“When every answer and its opposite appear equally obvious, then…something is wrong with the entire argument of ‘obviousness’”, from Everything Is Obvious: How common sense fails us, by Duncan J. Watts. The above example comes from the preface of his book, illustrating that while much of our common sense seems obvious, logical, and convincing, yet when examined closely, many common-sense ideas are colossally off track, opposite to reality, and plainly wrong. Still, the majority of us like to cling to the bible of “common sense.” Mr. Watts uses a few aphorisms as examples. “Birds of a feather flock together, but opposites attract. Absence indeed makes the heart grow fonder, but out of sight is out of mind.” In Chinese culture, it’s paramount that you don’t ever challenge your parents: “Parents the world over are never wrong;” yet, “No one is perfect.” And we laud people having “high sense of integrity and principles;” who wouldn’t?!

Did you know that roughly 90% of Americans think they are above-average drivers?  Yes, common sense is individually or socially constructed reality. We choose whatever appeals to us to deal with situation at hand, be it about market fluctuations, political candidates, strategic planning, or what to wear for what occasions…in other words, all aspects of life. My common sense solution is another person’s head-scratching frustration, and my better-than-average-driving may cause another driver to evade me and curse up a storm.

We often hear, “It’s just common sense for managers to think/behave/decide…” If it were so easy, and if common sense were so unambiguous, why do we have so many issues with management practices? As I have said often: That which can be clearly defined and measured is much easier to grasp than issues that are considered “soft,” such as emotional states, unspoken tensions, personality conflicts, etc. So, I find resonance in Mr. Watts’ statement, “Why is it that rocket science seems hard, whereas problems having to do with people – which arguably are much harder – seem like they ought to be just a matter of common sense?” Indeed, while it’s complicated, we have managed to land people on the Moon or robots on Mars, but we cannot solve world poverty or the spread of Ebola (at least not yet), or predict the number of books a publisher should print. Watts spends the first half of his book debunking many common sense ideas and the second half delineating some uncommon-sense principles and practices.

Common sense, Watts explains, is grounded in the “here and now” situations in our daily life; it does not and cannot explain why we behave in certain ways, how we think, or how the world events play out. The problems arise when we keep applying common sense to problems that involve large numbers of people and across times.

Cute and cuddly?  Just don't get too close, unless you have a good telephoto lens.

Cute and cuddly? Just don’t get too close, unless you have a good telephoto lens.

There are three basic common sense errors. The first is that we think that if we can put ourselves in another’s shoes, we can predict that individual’s behavior, movement, or purchasing habits. But the internal motivation, complex belief system, or history of any individual is not an open book. So, we are likely to make wrong predictions. Second, if we can’t have confidence predicting one person’s behavior, how do we predict the behavior of a group of individuals who interact with each other and influence each other, in ways that still elude sociologists and psychologists. This then gets to the third error, concerning our understanding of history, “…we learn less from history than we think we do, and that this misperception in turn skews our perception of the future.”

The problem with our view of history is that what we take away is but one slice of what took place, that which is later constructed as being the “important” portion of the long and wide field of what really happened. Imagine taking a bird’s eye view, a flying sentient being seeing everything at that moment. How would this flying “person” describe what she saw? In any storytelling, fictitious or not, our brain has to process the information linearly, one event at a time. The storyteller (the one who could fly) still has to impose his “framing” principles so that the story coming out of his mouth would “make sense.” In making sense, the storyteller gets to decide which happening down the field should be told first. And as soon as we hear a string of stories, we tend to impose causality when there might not be any causality that connects disparate events in the field. In addition, we cannot know all the events that could have happened, that might have taken place, or that did occur but were out in another field. Mr. Watts used the example of Paul Revere, illustrated in Malcolm Gladwell’s “The Tipping Point.” (I like Gladwell’s work, but now I feel the need to reread his books with fresher perspectives.)

In Gladwell’s telling of the famed Lexington uprising in 1775, he illustrated two routes, one taken by Paul Revere and the other by William Dawes. We now know that Revere roused the residents to take up arms. Mr. Gladwell attributes the success of the Lexington battle to Revere’s charismatic presence. Therefore, Mr. Revere was “a connector,” and Mr. Dawes was not. But by Mr. Watt’s analysis, that conclusion is too convenient. There were many overlooked factors, different towns on the different routes, the different people who made different decisions (to rise or not rise), and other factors that we can’t “see” in our rearview mirror. Had Revere and Dawes switched their routes, might Mr. Dawes be the one history remembers?

That's a bird's eye view I'll never get tired of.

That’s a bird’s eye view I’ll never get tired of.

We couldn’t know then; history wasn’t played out yet. We can’t know now for certain; we only know the history that’s been presented to us. But we like our stories, and so we embrace the attributions that give birth to yet another piece of common sense.

I’ll relate a few more important lessons regarding common-sense mistakes next time.

Till then,

Staying Sane and Charging Ahead.

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How Much Anxiety Is Good For You? (or, bad for you?)

And do anxious people tend to be unhappy in general? While pessimists’ anxiety can drive some people nuts, optimists’ seemingly perpetual cheerfulness can wear others down as well. America is a society largely geared for positive and cheerful people, at least, that’s the direction toward which we like to push each other, similar to social norms over-representing extroverts.  Many Americans like the either-or perspective, certainly preferred over single-choice or neither-nor.

Since most social issues and dynamics are not black and white, it should not surprise anyone to learn that there is an upside for pessimism. It’s called “defensive pessimism.”  It works this way: When people fear certain situations or imagine unfavorable outcomes, they intentionally prepare themselves for these “bad” things. That preparation is their defense mechanism which often allows them to perform better than if they didn’t think about the situations at all. Of course, there is another way out of feeling anxious: taking the “flight” option rather than “fight.” However, avoiding an anxious situation altogether – the flight choice — is a defeatist attitude; that’s probably the abject and ultimate pessimist. I don’t think “Extreme Pessimists” reality show would ever come to reality.

Optimist or pessimist is irrelevant when installing Mr. Dale Chihuly's glass  artwork.  Be prepare is prudent.

Optimist or pessimist is irrelevant when installing Mr. Dale Chihuly’s glass artwork. Be prepare is prudent.

Of course, when people vocalize their anxiety or worry – and if they aren’t dismissed outright as “not quite competent” — they often get the response, “Oh, think positive.” That would definitely make me feel very punchy. People feel the way they feel, they can’t really help their feeling. What they can help is letting the feeling inform them what actions to take to ameliorate the situation that causes their anxiety. Quite often, “forcing” a cheerful attitude can bring about more anxiety than sitting quietly for a while. Seriously, we can no more force a pessimist to be more cheerful than we can force a cheerful optimist to take a downer, just as we can’t force an introvert to become an extrovert or vice versa.

This doesn’t mean that people, of various natures, cannot adapt and take actions of their own volition. Public speaking is most often cited example where people’s anxiety can be managed, or even channeled into becoming helpful. The pessimists’ defense mechanisms, by conjuring images of some of the worst possible scenarios such as possibly tripping over wires, helps the person to be more attuned to what lies around on the floor. Anticipating a computer breakdown, the anxious presenter may have some props ready to continue the talk. Practicing some “gracious” responses or retorts can calm one’s nerves. And worst comes to worst, if I really “fail,” I image ways of picking myself up.

All in all, being prepared, or more prepared, isn’t a bad strategy. What’s the downside? As I hinted previously, once you voice your anxiety, some may see you in a negative light; you just supply them with additional reasons to doubt you. But even for someone like Scott Stossel, editor of the Atlantic magazine, whose severe anxiety requires medication, careful preparation including well-timed medicine administration is a silver lining. And Mr. Stossel, according to his “My Age of Anxiety,” certainly has awesome anxieties, some of which are quite bizarre, like fear of one’s own vomit. Hmmm, chew on that idea!

Pessimists do not go moping about all the time; they smile sometimes and can possess a great sense of humor. Are they happy? Do they fear happiness?  I think these are strange, and quite frankly pointless, questions. Who is happy all the time? Happiness is an emotional state, which means it is not a constant. Even “happy people” doesn’t mean that they are happy all the time. And the pessimist, when preparedness brings about great outcomes, can be euphoric.

blue boat

For me, the lessons from reading some of the articles on “defensive pessimism” are: 1. The either-or perspective ignores nuances. We don’t operate optimally on an on-and-off mode. Human beings are quite complex, politicians excluded. 2. What works well for others may not work for me. The core of understanding what would work best for you is finding that fit. Pessimists spend a lot of time and energy “over-preparing;” it works for them. Others might prefer to punt as they go along; their preferred modus operandi works for them. Why should one way be automatically and universally “better” than the other? 3. True diversity is about allowing different ways of thinking and being.

Till next time,


Staying Sane and Charging Ahead.

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Follow-up On “Reluctant Leaders” And “Followership”

First, a little humor (at someone’s small expense) on how data-driven decisions without context can be colossally stupid. Mr. Ben Bernanke’s recent application for refinancing his D.C. house was turned down. Mr. Bernanke, you recall, was the former chairman of the Federal Reserve. According to the writer of the NYTimes article, the cause probably stemmed from Mr. Bernanke’s employment status, which changed from an 11-year salaried position to commission-based income (which includes $250,000 for a speech and a likely 7 figure book contract). Somewhere out there, a loan officer’s job is probably in jeopardy.


red sunset

Now on to today’s topic.

A few readers have responded to the latest post on “reluctant leadership” with observations, questions, and insights. Their comments and thoughts have furthered my understanding, and here are a few more follow-up points

A “reluctant leader” may have a tougher time establishing her leadership role initially. This difficulty gets amplified if she encounters a few “followers” who secretly, or not so secretly, believe they should be the leaders. She’s likely to face a few passive-aggressive people, whose engagement may sound like “Oh, yes, that sounds like a good idea, but I am currently swamped and cannot undertake any more work.” Or, “You have good credentials. [pause] I think I remember X has written about this topic, you may want to look into that.”

And in some situations, no one wants to lead and no one wants to follow. This really begs the question: What is everyone doing?

Most situations that we are familiar with, or have encountered, are in small to medium groups, like a typical work unit in most organizations. In such an environment, tasks are generally clearly defined, as well as the supervisory and staff roles and expectations. Even if a manager is a reluctant one, he is generally clear about what he needs to do. His staff may be on the fence about his leadership at the beginning, but in the end will settle on undertaking their share of responsibilities.

The leadership-followership dynamics is much thornier in less structured community project teams, or other ad hoc groups. In these types of gatherings, the dynamics are truly fluid; group boundaries are porous (people come and go, and few are really committed); there is little sense of “membership,” and roles and expectations are ambiguous. Further, people involved in most community project teams are there because they are “important” by some yardstick. The initial phase in such a group is marked by an egalitarian spirit, which makes choosing a leader a difficult task. Bypassing “choosing” a leader, the group hopes that eventually a leader would emerge “naturally;” however, this requires that the members be committed in forming their group and planning and executing the work. And group process is never easy. If there is no leader present or emerging, there cannot be any followers to speak of. Once again, why are they there?

Group life is messy. Just look at most family dynamics. Whenever I taught group dynamics, people’s initial response was, “It’s easy. You set goals clearly; you divide up the tasks, and assign everyone a role to fulfill. If we are all goal oriented, we’ll get things done.” In turn, I asked, “How does it work out in your family?” To start with, how do goals and tasks get defined? By groups? by one or two people? Why should the rest go along with one or two people’s decisions? Sometimes, even a seemingly simple project, a noble cause, or even a clearly defined goal can be derailed because people don’t know how to proceed in a group. The forming-storming-norming-performing of group life, while a cliché, catches the need for groups to evolve to cohere (or, to dissolve in some cases). Even truly egalitarian groups do not come about because members will them so. They argue; they negotiate; they make bad decisions; they make good choices; they try and fail; they try and succeed…etc.

Whether in the workplace or in the community, leadership is not limited to people occupying management positions, as I argued in one of my earlier topics, “Managers Are Not Leaders.”  There are different types of leadership roles, and people can undertake them without being appointed. For instance, other than a manager or appointed project leader (a positional leader), a group member can become a thought leader (good at generating ideas), or a performance leader (skilled at advancing process, driving execution, and identifying efficiencies along the way, as the situation calls for). Leadership and followership are not static; there is always give-and-take on both sides. I contend that the “reluctant leaders” understand and accept such dynamics while “command-and-control” type of leaders want things in a “just so” orderly manner.

a shaft of gold


For those who want to know more about (or be reminded of) group/intergroup dynamics, please go to my first entry on this topic here. Till next time,

Staying Sane and Charging Ahead.

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