A new book by a research scientist at Yahoo! shows us the follies of common senseby Jay Elwes / June 22, 2011 / Leave a comment
Everything is Obvious: *Once You Know The Answer by Duncan J Watts, (Atlantic Books, £18.99)
The principal idea of this dense, engaging book is that common sense can be more of a hindrance than a help. Many of the ideas that shape the way we look at the world, help us to address problems and account for societal change, are simply heuristics—they are the products of our common sense. Many of them are also grossly misleading.
To illustrate the point, the author, a research scientist at Yahoo!, describes an experiment performed in the mid-20th century by US sociologists. Subjects were told various facts and asked to comment on them. One of these facts was that men from rural areas make better soldiers than those from urban areas. On hearing this, the test subjects mostly agreed that this fact was so obvious as to be almost self-evident. Of course soldiers from the countryside would do better in the outdoors. Of course they would be more hardy—it stands to reason. It is common sense.
The twist is that the fact was a deliberate lie. Research had shown the opposite: soldiers from cities adapt better than their country counterparts. The moral here is clear. That which seems obvious is not always true. But there is another, more fundamental level to this discovery: that when an outcome is considered after the fact, there is a tendency to assume that it was inevitable. So, once we hear that soldiers from certain areas act a certain way, we assume that of course they do. And when we see a profitable and successful company—Watts uses Apple as an example—we assume that Steve Jobs must be a genius because, well, just look at how well the company is doing. With him at the helm, success was surely inevitable.
It is cognitive biases such as these that Watts aims to attack. He does so deftly, writing in that lapidary prose that only scientists can muster. In perhaps his strongest argument, Watts shows how the idea of “common sense” is undefinable. The reason for this is that apparently normal, commonsensical behaviour is based on a very complex set of rules, all of them unwritten and many unacknowledged.
He gives an example of a 1970s sociologist who sent his students into the New York subway to conduct an experiment. Their task was to approach a fellow passenger, ask them to give…