Saturday 30 November 2013

Why is common sense so uncommon? (or what were you thinking when you took that decision?)

A tag-line in my LinkedIn profile states that I am fascinated by why common-sense is fairly uncommon? I put this up on my profile more than five years ago and since then have had the opportunity to explain my point of view to a few bold souls who did ask me what it meant. Some accepted my point of view but some debated and life went on. However, after five years of rumination, I am still struggling to understand why people (particularly in the corporate world) do not appear to have progressed much on this front and still leave common sense in abeyance on a consistent basis.

Common-sense in simple terms is “a basic ability to perceive, understand, and judge things which is shared by ("common to") nearly all people, and can be reasonably expected of nearly all people without any need for debate.” For me, lack of common-sense is when people miss out what others might consider obvious and apparent (to both eye and mind). Something that should have triggered a straight-forward response seems to have invoked a contrary response that defies common logic or shows an absence of alertness, which others take for granted or expect when dealing with other humans.

I concede that the term ‘obvious’ is relative as we know that one man’s dinner may be something that is sacred for another! What appears to be obvious to one person’s frame of reference may not be obvious to another person’s frame of reference but in general it is implicit that the norm is considered universal. For e.g. it is generally understood that that hitting someone in the face with a hammer forcefully will lead to severe damage, even if someone has never seen a hammer! So I can with some sense of certainty state that someone who does that and then is surprised by the outcome is possibly devoid of common-sense? (or just full of nonsense as one of my colleagues chirped when I used this metaphor!).

The basic premise of common-sense is that it is something acquired naturally rather than learnt from books. It is deemed to be an awareness that is within and not coming from without (from books or from an education?). My instinct says that common-sense is also a function of how an individual person acquires data and then applies it to gain experience. Do remember that we as humans are more uncommon in how we think or act due to our own unique circumstance. It is not only about nature but also about how we are nurtured! At times, we need to be able to be more aware and understanding of others rather than judging others.

So why do some people seem to lack common-sense? As I pondered on a simplistic response I realised that there is no simple response to this. Some people may lack it due to experience (related to age) and due to certain cultural aspects that they inherit or adopt but I have also observed some traits and characteristics during my nineteen year corporate journey that I share as plausible explanations. These explanations invariably have their basis in cognition, which in simple terms is a group of mental processes that includes the attention of working memory, producing and comprehending language, learning, reasoning, problem solving and decision making. The human brain is a potent weapon and due to the nature of its talent also has inherent biases that can help in suspending common-sense. The intent of the outlining the reasons below is not to make you a better judge of common-sense (as observed in others) but rather help you understand the nature of what is holding you back from using common-sense!
  1. People tend to over- estimate their level of competence (i.e. ability) as they base their assessment on how skilful they think they are. In general, people tend to “over-rate” their skill level and such over-rating of skills and estimates of competence can lead to flawed decisions and judgements that are not grounded in reality (as an aside this is a critical issue that impacts performance management at most organisations)
  2. We are overly optimistic (optimism bias) in assessing our chances of success vs. our chances of failure. Our approach typically aims at maximising a positive outcome and minimising the associated risk. Linked to this is ‘confirmation Bias’, which is defined as “a tendency for people to favour information that confirms their preconceptions or hypotheses regardless of whether the information is true. As a result, people gather evidence and recall information from memory selectively, and interpret it in a biased way”
  3. Linked to the above, is when people tell me that their own particular circumstance is unique and that the probability of failure is for someone else rather than applicable to them. This is a cognitive bias referred to as neglect of probability and is “the tendency to completely disregard probability when making a decision under uncertainty and is one simple way in which people regularly violate the normative rules for decision making. Small risks are typically either neglected entirely or hugely overrated, the continuum between the extremes is ignored”
  4. We also make poor judgement calls because we extrapolate past success that was totally random (i.e. just happened to work out in one's favour) to further decisions. This is particularly true of people who make ethical transgressions that initially were small but since they were not picked up or questioned led to further and bigger dubious decisions until someone was caught out (slippery slope). I have seen people make ethical choices which in hindsight always made me ask -- "What were you thinking?." Additionally, common sense is suspended when individuals tend to look for patterns where none exist. Finding a pattern gives us the ill-founded feeling of being grounded rather than left with the abstract
  5. Another important aspect is the herd-effect or band-wagon effect, which is the tendency of people to align their beliefs and behaviours with those of a group. In simple terms, if everyone is doing it then it must be right or something that we should do as well;
  6. The final aspect I wanted to highlight is one that I have noticed at times where humans consider doing something as more important than not doing anything (the illusion of progress). I have also noticed that people adopt fatalistic attributes when making a decision i.e. take a decision and then hope that god would do something unique for them or deliver a divine outcome despite the lack of common-sense applied. In this scenario, we also tend to shun responsibility for our actions or inaction particularly when the outcome is detrimental to others and not self.

Working on this aspect is likely to help in establishing you as someone with common-sense and not get the moniker of ‘nonsense’ (poor pun but hope you get my point). My suggestion would be to review and understand cognitive biases in more detail. I am surprised that traditional organisational training and educational programmes do not provide employee friendly material on the matter of common-sense when we know that the result can only be good for all employees!

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  1. Deepak
    If one looks at the notion of common sense from the black and white viewpoint of some have it and some don't, we will not be dealing with a true frame of reference. Because there is always a blacker shade of black and a whiter shade of white, one will encounter people with various degrees of common sense. Thus, just when you think you have found someone with no common sense, before long you will meet someone else who has even less common sense. And just when you figure you have found a genius, someone who makes that genius seem like an imbecile will cross your path.

    1. Eamonn..agreed...and therein lies the challenge, which I acknowledge in the article as well. Experience makes a world of difference and can be a challenge in differentiating between a genius and and imbecile.Though I would not use the word imbecile and prefer something lighter! (;>) Thanks.