It’s just common sense, and that’s a problem
Often times when frustrated with politicians, bureaucrats, or anyone involved in trying to solve a difficult problem, we see a reference to “common sense” or the lack thereof. “Why don’t they just use common sense?” “If only they had a modicum of common sense!” “Whatever happened to good old common sense?” Indeed, whatever did happen to common sense> Nothing, and that’s precisely the problem.
While it’s seductive to think about how much better we’d all be if there was a reliance on “common sense,” I’d suggest that it is exactly that dependence on common sense that contributes to the problems around us. Or at least, that’s what my common sense says.
In a recently published book, Everything is Obvious, Once You Know the Answers, Duncan Watts, of Six Degrees of Separation fame, addresses the infatuation with and reliance on common sense, and, in so doing, made a lot of sense to me (but hopefully uncommon in nature). However, he also created another schism in my belief system, upset my sense of equilibrium, and lessened my certainty about many issues in life that I’d taken for granted. I guess that’s just common sense.
But what is common sense, and why am I suddenly peering suspiciously over my shoulder when a discussion regarding the need for common sense arises. I’m sure we’ve all been in a discussion where someone emphatically and convincingly calls for the need for “common sense” in solving a problem. Nodding our heads sagely, stroking our chins (at least that’s what I do) in contemplation, we reflect on the potential such a reasonable action might have in solving our problems. I mean, take health care, it certainly is in need of repair (or so my common sense tells me) and how much easier it would be if we just applied a little common sense to solving the problems.
Common sense is accepted principally when we can’t specifically pinpoint the underlying principles or evidence for why a specific fact is correct, it’s just common sense. It is a loosely organized set of observations, insights, and wisdom we accumulate over a lifetime, in response to reactions to everyday situations.
Try explaining why some of the things you think of as common sense are labeled as such. We are convinced we’re all above average drivers, in spite of the mathematical fact that that is not possible. It’s just common sense that it’s right to hold open doors for others at times, be respectful of other’s space in conversations, not stand face to face and stare at someone in an elevator. We just know based on our experience those behaviors make sense. It’s precisely because while they sound logical, seem reasonable, and make sense, when in reality, we don’t really have underlying evidence to support exactly why it is….common sense. I mean, that’s just common sense, isn’t it?
But there is a danger in relying on common sense as a basis for a decision, especially one that has significant implications in predicting future outcomes. The decision may be a great strategy, be well designed, and well intentioned, but if it’s based on a bad idea, it’s not going to get us where we need to go. And unfortunately, all too often what sounds like good common sense to us intuitively is based solely on our existing belief system, and not any underlying hard evidence or facts. Because that’s exactly what common sense is—a conclusion based on anecdotes, beliefs, but not able to be proven.
In ancient Greece, the wisest and most respected scholars gave much time to considering the cause of lightning and thunder. Because of their underlying beliefs in the existence of mythologic gods and goddesses, after great contemplation, likely accompanied with the intake of significant amounts of a grape extract, thought leaders concluded that lightning and thunder were the result of arguments and disagreements between the gods—Zeus particularly perturbed with Athena perhaps. It just made good common sense—at the time. Today we laugh at that and are astonished that they could make so foolhardy a conclusion.
But what belief, common sense concept that we hold dear today will in a matter of decades or centuries be equally foolish by the standards of knowledge that will then exist? What basic assumption that we accept as common sense will turn out to be as fanciful as the alchemists’ conviction they could turn lead into gold?
I’ve been intrigued and impressed in health care with the continued efforts to incentivize behavior change in health care providers through different permutations of a pay for performance program. While there have been incidences of mild improvement in isolated locations, it has been less than a stellar success. But it is “common sense” that if we pay someone differently, provide a financial incentive of some sort, we will see a significant change in behavior. With that underlying assumption, we see increases in the amount paid, differences in to who it’s paid, complex new mathematical models to either include or exclude risk stratification to engage participants. Surely, if we just find the correct model, apply the appropriate mathematics, identify the critical area of focus, behavior change will be accomplished through pay for performance.
But then we have people like Daniel Pink (Drive), David Eagleman (Incognito), Jonah Lehrer (How We Decide) and others point out extrinsic vs. intrinsic motivation. Extrinsic motivation, as manifested by attempting to motivate behavior change by external incentives—like pay for performance or performance incentives as a part of my annual salary—from a neuroscience behavior standpoint are not sustainable and do not lead to long-term change in behavior.
Yet because “common sense” tells us that if we just figured out how to pay people differently, we’d incent behavior change, we keep tinkering around with the concept, but not consider that perhaps the basic principle—strongly based on common sense—is flawed.
I know this is too simplistic, and there are many nuances which need to be introduced into the discussion, but it seems that a reliance on common sense, which is often called upon in a time of uncertainty or ambiguity, should be questioned and investigated as we attempt to make a predictive decision about our future. After all, doesn’t that seem like common sense?