re-thinking common sense

I listened to this podcast the other day that really made me re-think a few things.

(I’m sure I’ve mentioned this before, but as a mother of young children living in a foreign country, I really feel like listening to podcasts helps save my sanity. I also feel that Doug Fabrizio and Terry Gross are my friends, which I realize sounds slightly less sane.)

The guest, Duncan Watts, is a social scientist who was once a physicist, and I know this reflects a little intellectual snobbery on my part, but the physics background gave him some extra credibility for me. His book, which I should probably read, is about how what we think is common sense probably actually isn’t. Two main points which stuck with me…

  • Our common sense is based on our experiences, so what is common sense to you will not be common sense for, say, a tribesman in Africa, or even just someone raised in a different family than yours.
  • What we often refer to as common sense is actually hindsight, which as the saying goes, is always 20/20. There were some interesting studies that proved this — that when you tell people the answer, they’ll say, “Well of course,” but then if you give them a different answer to the same question and tell them the second one is really the right one, they will still say, “That makes perfect sense.” Can’t you see yourself doing that? I can.

Here’s my lightbulb moment. I think assuming things are common sense makes us judge other people unfairly. It seems so obvious to us what to do in any given situation, why can’t they see it?

Matt has a brother who is a social scientist, and I’ve offended him several times (he takes it really well) by opening my mouth when I should probably keep it closed. He studies things like how gratitude affects our happiness, and my smart-alecky response to that is, “Don’t we already know that gratitude makes us happy?” Well, it turns out, maybe not everyone does. I, and many of you, were raised in a way that makes his research seem like common sense, but perhaps doing a peer-reviewed study on the topic opens it up to a world where it isn’t common sense for everyone.

This same brother and I had quite a go-round on the topic of self-help books, which are popular in Matt’s family’s culture, but not so much in mine, and I realized my new thinking applies there too. My contention (among other things) was that  self-help books are chock full of common sense, and therefore a waste of time. Well, again, there are people for whom, “putting first things first,” for example, isn’t so obvious. One of my own children, I think, may benefit from reading about how to win friends, as it isn’t coming very naturally for him.

I can think of a thousand examples of this, and it’s probably not new news, but it bears repeating. We can’t assume that what we think is common sense or obvious. And we always need to give others a fair shot — maybe their common sense is just as good as ours, or even better.


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