Yang: Common Sense Writ Large

Los Alamos

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 upon. 

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?”

We 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 least 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, including one 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 failures very often, and businesses keep practicing the same things. 

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.

Direct Contact: taso100@gmail.com

Editor’s note: Dr. Yang has a PhD in Management from the Wharton Business School of the University of Pennsylvania. She taught at Wharton for a number of years, and consulted for small groups and small organizations and on cross-cultural issues. Her professional worldview comprises three pillars: 1. All organizations are social systems in which elements are inter-related. 2. To improve organizations, the focus should be on the positive dimensions on which to build. This philosophical foundation is Appreciative Inquiry. 3. Yang subscribes to the methodological perspective that she is part of the instrument from which to gain quality data from respondents, and with which to compare and contrast with others’ realities.


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