Trapped in common sense


It doesn’t matter if we’re being squeezed in against others on a crowded train. But it does matter if someone stands close to us when the train’s empty. It doesn’t matter when we’re facing each other in enclosed spaces. But it does matter if someone stands facing us in a lift. It seems like we’re wired to some kind of rules that encourage us to spread out when there’s space. These are unwritten rules and are everywhere around us. No matter where we live, our lives are guided by these rules. A reasonable person is expected to know them. At times, a reasonable person is also expected to ignore them.

Unwritten rules are informal rules. Then there are written rules that are formal rules. Formal rules seem less important than informal rules because we like to break them. Informal rules seem more important than formal rules because we like to use them. We use informal rules to solve many of our problems, from personal to social.

We can refer to these unwritten, informal rules as common sense. Common sense is so common that we see it only when it’s missing. But it helps many of our daily activities. It is common sense that tells us to be clean, behave appropriately, pick clothes or maintain relationships. It is common sense that tells us when to follow rules, when to ignore them and when to challenge them.

There are two defining features of common sense. The sociologist Carl Taylor put these forward in 1946. The first feature of common sense is it’s overwhelmingly practical. The second feature of common sense is it’s driven by spontaneity. It is these features that make common sense different to say, sciences or mathematics. Common sense is more about providing answers to problems and less about getting to them. Common sense is therefore more about what and less about why. The power of common sense lies in its ability to deal with situations on their own terms. Which means, common sense doesn’t always reflect a problem, but simply attempts to deal with it. This calls for a couple of issues.

Firstly, this is why common sense is hard to be taught. Those who lack common sense therefore don’t get it as to why they need to pay attention. They don’t seem to understand what is it that they don’t get. And because it’s not clear as to what it is that they didn’t get, it’s hard to help them. And it’s surprisingly hard to explain what is it that they’re doing is wrong.

Secondly, common sense, by principle, isn’t always right. It’s a mixed bag of intuition, experience and knowledge. The contextual nature of common sense means these factors don't always end up in the best of proportions. Which means, our common sense isn’t always right. It is bound to make mistakes. It is important to recognise how common sense fails to be able to plan the future better or understand the present better. It turns out that common sense tends to fail in three forms. The sociologist Duncan Watts explains them in Everything is Obvious.

Firstly, the way we understand individual behaviour is flawed. When we think about why people do what they do, we tend to focus on rewards and motivations but not on reactions. No matter how careful we are, in putting ourselves in someone else's shoes, we're likely to make mistakes predicting how they’ll behave outside a given situation.

Secondly, the way we understand group behaviour is worse. When people meet at parties, markets or gigs, they connect. As they connect, ideas, opinions and thoughts are exchanged; and eventually, in some way or the way, influence each other’s views. Opinions are formed and decisions are made as to whether something’s right or wrong, fair or unfair, cheap or good. These influences tend to pile up in unexpected ways. Therefore, group behaviour seems to reflect more about what’s ideal than what’s happening.

Thirdly, we learn less from history than we think we do. This misunderstanding changes the way we see the future. Whenever something exciting, dramatic or terrible happens, we look for explanations. But since we look for explanations only after something has happened, our focus is on what has happened rather than what might have happened but didn’t happen. So we deceive ourselves into believing we can make predictions that are impossible, even in principle.

Common sense is a great way to make sense of the world, but not necessarily understanding it. It provides ready explanations and helps us through our lives everyday. But since we don’t understand why, we end up deceiving ourselves with plausible-sounding stories instead. So it weakens our motivations in treating social problems the way we treat problems in medicine, engineering and sciences. Common sense, although hard to imagine, restricts our understanding of the world.

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