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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