Social Science of Common Sense

We’re constantly told to act according to common sense. Common sense is supposed to stop us from making foolish mistakes, and in many ways it does. This notion describes all of our social learning in a nutshell. It’s the collection of the sum total of our personal experiences as well as those of the people around us. It helps us walk into a situation with a certain level of familiarity. The problem with common sense is that it can be misleading.

We take certain things at face value and we never stop to think about where or why we hold certain bits of knowledge as “true” or as “fact.” Sociologist Duncan Watts has written extensively on common sense and how social science can both take apart taken for granted assumptions about the world, as well as strengthen how we view and use “common sense.”

His point as illustrated in the quote below is that common sense can be a problem when we try to apply it to cultures, organisations or any broader aspect of social life. Social relations are complex and they require research, social theory and informed critical thinking.

As social scientists have long pointed out, however, common sense can easily support opposite conclusions — which is why politicians on both ends of the political spectrum invoke it in support of their arguments, even as they disagree bitterly.

For the same reason, it is easy to come up with plausible sounding hypotheses about even highly complex social and political problems — the causes of the recent financial crisis, or the likely impact of the new health care law — but extremely difficult to prove any of them right or wrong.

All of this puts social science in an awkward position with respect to public perception: Answering even the simplest social science questions is painstaking work; yet the answers tend to seem obvious. Worse, when results from social science do not conform to our intuitions, our reaction is not to be surprised and impressed, but rather to dismiss them.

Duncan Watts

Read Watt’s article from the Harvard Business Review

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