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Common Sense Frustrates Me

Courtesy Ethan Lofton, Flickr

I have recently completed a psychology course at a local college. This survey-level course was required by a lot of various majors, and suggested widely to undecided students. Because of this, the majority of the students would never again set foot in a psychology classroom. The instructor, a seasoned pro at this class, understood this well and structured the class to provide a very practical education in the field, one that students could take away and apply, immediately, to their lives. I am a big fan of this approach as it did no harm to those of us who (at the time) planned on a continued education in the field, but provided much more to those who didn’t. However, there was a common appeal that surfaced again and again in class: most of this is just common sense.

I have been distrustful of this phrase and concept for ages, but it became very clear in the course of this class just how problematic (and nearly useless) this concept has become in our age. I think there are three very specific reasons (among others, for sure) that inform my feelings on this.

First, “common sense” is anything but common. The ways that culture, media exposure, specific upbringing, social class, etc. plays into our lives, no one has enough of a common background for the assumptions and “obvious” answers they may formulate to an issue to be so similar as to call theym common. I may have learned, growing up, that small transgressions of rule are best handled with an iron fist. You may have learned that the same situations are best handled with forgiveness and education. When confronted with a situation that calls on us to handle a transgression of rule, you and I will have very different “common sense” ways of dealing with it.

Additionally, “common sense” is not particularly sensible. We could substitute a varitey of phrases for “common sense” such as “gut feeling” or “intuition.” The gist is that we somehow know, deep down, the right answer to a problem making careful, detailed analysis unnecessary to render a verdict in a situation. However, we know that this is simply not the case. Common sense would mean that insignificant numbers of people would smoke, that the economy would be an open book, and that other complex systems would be laid bare if we just dug deep enough within ourselves.

That brings me to the third reason that reliance on common sense frustrates me. Our world is far too complex to suss out with a feeling. Now, I’m not denying that experts in a field develop an innate ability to evaluate a situation fairly accurately without the same analysis as others may need, but this situation is outside the realm of “common” as we usually use it. (Experts, for instance, usually know what does need specific analysis and, rather than evaluating an entire problem using their guts, they usually use their narrow version of common sense to understand how to better tackle the problem) For most of us, the systems we try to judge through our common sense are simply far too complex, with far more hidden variables and repercussions than we can be aware of. Yet I think it’s human nature to simplify to the point that we do think we can make a judgement about a situation. By discarding and collapsing complexity, we shape a situation into one that seems familiar to us and that we can easily formulate a “solution” to. This is innate in us, and a very useful trait, but one that seems to get us in trouble all the time.

I would like us to stop treating complex issues as ones that can be solved with common sense. I think there is a place for it, as flawed as it is, but it’s at a specific scale. For instance, if we use common sense in the application of core principles to laws, we may write better laws. (flawed, still, but better.) If we use common sense to evaluate small aspects of complex systems, it can help us build up a better idea of the whole. (still flawed, but useful) If we use common sense to evaluate our own actions as they relate to others, we may act better towards people. (maybe I’m dreaming.) But in all these cases, common sense can only be used as a small part of a full systematic evaluation, not as a simple way to pass judgement or make decisions.

I really wish we would learn that things are too complex for simple evaluations.


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