Duncan Watts has just written a new book with the title “Everything is Obvious (Once You Know the Answer): How Common Sense Fails. Watts explores how our reliance on commons sense and the idea of what is obvious in human behavior to govern our everyday lives often translates to errors when anticipating or managing the behaviors of many individuals in a complex setting over time – such as in a corporation, a culture or a certain market.
With common sense we can rationalize just about anything into an obvious conclusion. The study of social sciences is often looked upon as unnecessary for that very reason. If a study concludes that people living in the city are more likely to own vacation home then our common sense will tell us ‘of course they are more likely to own a vacation home so they can get away from the hustle and bustle of the city and relax’. While that same study could conclude that those living in rural areas are more likely to own vacation homes and again our ‘common sense’ would kick in and tell us that ‘of course it makes sense that those in rural areas would be more likely own vacation homes, they are more relaxed and aren’t as addicted to the corporate life and convenience of the city.’ It would be seemingly obvious either way but the accuracy of the pattern can only be determined through the study of social behavior.
For example, under the guise of common sense, marketers may feel that they have a good sense of what consumers want and how to sell them more. However, their predictions are often based on their own ‘obvious’ motivations rather than the complex variety of motivations that exist within a diverse group. The same is true for any problem that falls under the umbrella of ‘social’ rather than scientific. However, as Watts points out in his book we actually have a much better grasp on the physical sciences than managing problems with a people factor such as the economy or corporate culture.
“The paradox of common sense, then, is that even as it helps us make sense of the world, it can actively undermine our ability to understand it.”