Everything Is Obvious 1/x

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1/ The Myth of Common Sense

  • The book quotes the debunked Milgram experiment (using high voltage to punish students). Not good.

  • Our lives are guided and shaped by unwritten rules, which are too abundant to write them all down and for one to know them all. Many of them are intuitive to the point that the brain just makes a snap decision based on the non-verbal feedback from another person (breaking eye contact, for instance).

  • Adjusting to new environments (new school, new job, new country) is filled with rules we don’t understand yet, but which eventually become more familiar. Informal rules are even more important, and one sometimes learns about them only after having broken one. Informal rules can be built on top of other informal rules, adding to the complexity.

  • Common sense is the essence of social intelligence, necessary for all aspects of everyday life and relationships. But it’s very hard to pin down: it’s the loosely organized set of facts, observations, experiences, insights and pieces of received wisdom we accumulate over the entire lifetime, in the course of encountering, dealing with, and learning from, everyday situations. (MK: which is proof that one’s common sense is different from another one’s simply due to the differences is life experiences and the social circle.)

  • It can be general (related to all aspects of everyday life) and special (related to the field of one’s study or employment, requiring years of specific practice in the field).

  • Common sense is very practical (i.e., the answer is more important than the reason for the answer). It gives a shortcut without lengthy explanations, dealing with the world as it is.

  • Common sense is not structured, so each situation can have a different behavioural pattern based on the context – but the decision (what to wear, how to respond, etc.) comes not from the typical if-else decision tree used in structured thinking. Thus, common sense knowledge can’t be replicated by computers too well.

  • There are people missing some pieces of common sense (socially inadept) and explaining them what exactly they’re missing is a hard challenge. The inability to understand the “rules of the game” may lead to all kinds of problems, involving relationships, employment and social capital.

  • Fairness plays a big role in developing common sense, but what’s fair varies between countries and cultures (think high-low power distance). So common sense is common only to the extent that two people share sufficiently similar social and cultural experiences. Requires collective tacit knowledge, encoded in the social norms, customs and practices of the world. The only way to get this knowledge is to participate in the society itself.

  • Because there are no written rules about common sense, it’s very hard for two people with varying understanding of the commonsense application to a particular matter to agree with each other.

  • People’s understanding of life evolves with new experiences and circumstances, hence it’s natural to look at oneself as of 10-15 years ago and share their head in disbelief how many stupid things one had believed at that point in time. Common sense at any point in time is a suppressed cognitive dissonance, and as such there’s always room for an endless journey into oneself to find the roots of any held belief.

  • These beliefs are often loosely dependent on each other making them hard to reconcile. This becomes even more obvious when we refer to the aphorisms like “birds of a feather flock together” and “opposites attract”. Both contradicting truths have a place in one’s brain, but we never specify the conditions under which one aphorism applies versus another. So, our brains end up being grab bags for logically inconsistent “truths” that describe certain situations but are not guaranteed to be true any other time.

The Misuse of Common Sense

  • Our lives don’t require facing the contradictions too often. The tasks we’re facing are usually quite isolated and can be tackled on independently by the applicable bits of common sense.

  • Predicting the behaviours of other people, though, is a completely different matter, especially when it happens in the future or in an unfamiliar context. It requires making assumptions based on the limited information about the people involved and the circumstances themselves. (MK: Because of this complexity, mass media has a huge indoctrination power by offering a no-nonsense context and simplified explanation of people’s behaviours and values, leading the readers to make “their own” judgements on any topic being presented.)

  • It’s OK if people are misguided into thinking whatever; stuff becomes real when the politicians start relying on their common sense in developing policies and rules. (MK: The worst part, of course, is that the world is so complex, that any attempt to simplify it via shortcuts will inevitably lead to poor outcomes for some stakeholders.)

  • One can argue that the mega-theories of the 20th century have all been an application of the common sense when it came to nations (Russia, Germany, Brazil, South Africa, etc.), and which have failed due to the underlying inconsistencies. What’s worse, such inconsistencies offer excellent monetary opportunities to some individuals, so the longer the game is played, the more rich/powerful the corrupt actors become.

  • The danger to applying common sense is the most pronounced when capital allocation decisions are justified using it. This is equally true for the nice people fighting world hunger and the ambitious CEOs throwing money into failed M&As.

  • There’s also a myth that the corporate sector is more efficient than the government, and one doesn’t need to go far to find the reason why this myth has appeared: there are way more large companies than there are governments, so cherry picking a successful company is no big deal.

  • And if “common sense” means “conservatism” and “careful risk taking”, then it gets thrown out of the window during the first signs of a financial bubble, but this is a whole different story.

How Common Sense Fails Us

  • When we try to understand people’s behaviours, we tend to focus on incentives, motivations and beliefs. But there are seemingly random factors like background music affecting the wine choices or fonts making written statements more believable, which (factors) can’t be reliably accounted for.

  • People in groups create “emergent” behaviours that can’t be explained by dissecting them back into individual behaviours. (Remote work vs in-person work, anyone?) There’s no single individual who could be used as a proxy for the group of people.

  • When trying to explain past events, we disproportionally focus on the reasoning and logic of what has actually happened, making a cohesive story in our minds, while ignoring what could’ve happened but never did. Such attempts at finding out causal relationships have poor predictive power, if any.

  • Thus, common sense is good at … making sense of the world (i.e., explaining it to oneself), but not necessarily understanding it (i.e., what really is going on). In this case making sense is an illusion of understanding. This means that many things we meet in day-to-day life and mentally process with the common sense shortcuts are not in fact understood properly.

Part 2