The Myth of Common Sense

Common sense is so ordinary that we tend to notice it only when it’s missing, but it is absolutely essential to functioning in everyday life. Common sense is how we know what to wear when we go to work in the morning, how to behave on the street or the subway, and how to maintain harmonious relationships with our friends and coworkers. It is the essence of social intelligence.

Common sense just “knows” what the appropriate thing to do is in any particular situation, without knowing how it knows it. It is the loosely organized set of facts, observations, experiences, insights, and pieces of received wisdom that each of us accumulates over a lifetime, in the course of encountering, dealing with, and learning from, everyday situations.

Common sense is “common” only to the extent that two people share suffiently similar social and cultural experiences. Common sense depends on collective tacit knowledge, meaning that it is encoded in the social norms, customs, and practices of the world.

The acquisition of this type of knowledge can be learned only by participating in society itself —and that’s why it is so hard to teach to machines. But it also means that even among humans, what seems reasonable to one might seem curious, bizarre, or even repugnant to another.

Disagreements over matters of common sense are hard to resolve because it’s unclear to either side on what grounds one can even conduct a reasonable argument. Whatever it is that people believe to be a matter of common sense, they believe it with absolute certainty. They are puzzled only at the fact that others disagree.

Therefore, common sense is not so much a worldview as a grab bag of logically inconsistent, often contradictory beliefs, each of which seems right at the time but carries no guarantee of being right any other time. Therefore, how can we be confident that what we believe is right when someone else feels equally strongly that it’s wrong?

The fragmented, inconsistent, and even self-contradictory nature of common sense does not generally present a problem in our everyday lives. When common sense is used for purposes beyond the everyday, it can fail spectacularly. Bad things happen not because we forget to use our common sense, but rather because the incredible effectiveness of common sense in solving the problems of everyday life causes us to put more faith in it than it can bear.

Summing-up: Although common sense is extremely useful for dealing with everyday problem solving, when applied to the kind of large-scale problems that arise in government, business, policy, and marketing, it can suffer from systematic failures. Nevertheless, because of the way we learn from history, these failures are rarely apparent to us. Fortunately, learning to suspect one’s own common sense can lead to other, more reliable approaches.

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