Home
I'm at the age where half of the adult conversations in my life are about one teenager or another in my extended social circle doing something that lacks "common sense." This seems to frustrate and anger adults.

But it doesn't frustrate me, for the same reason I don't expect my toaster to mow my lawn. A young person's brain doesn't have a fully developed prefrontal cortex, and that's the part of the brain that imagines future consequences of current actions. (Please correct me if I got the brain region wrong.)

I've also noticed - and this is purely anecdotal - that some people seem to be born with full prefrontal cortex function, in terms of imagining the future, and others don't develop that ability until adulthood. In my case, by the age of six I was planning my entire life through retirement. (That's literally true.) Obviously I've had to revise the plan often, but I've never had less than a fully-practical lifelong plan.

That's why I worked hard in school to get good grades. It's why as a kid I managed to stay out of any kind of trouble that would follow me. It's why I've never had a serious injury doing dumbass things. The downside was that I worried about the future more than a kid should. It wasn't a healthy situation.

Despite my nerdish impulse for long-range planning, I had no "common sense" as a kid. And that's probably because what passes as common sense is nothing but pattern recognition - or "experience" as we like to say - and kids haven't seen enough of life to recognize many patterns.

I tell a story in my new book about going to my first real-world job interview at the age of 20. I had no mentors in my life to advise me in the ways of the business world. I grew up in a town with 2,000 residents and I had never even met a "business person" per se. My job interview was with a major international accounting firm.

My common sense told me that the last thing I wanted to do in a job interview was lie, especially if the lie would be easily detected. So instead of wearing a suit to the interview, which would have required acting like a huge phony, I wore my casual student clothes. The interviewer already knew I was a senior in college, so why would I present myself in some false way to a person I wished to impress? My "common sense" said I should be honest in my appearance, to get off on the right foot.

The interviewer took one look at me and showed me the door. He said, "I don't think you know why you're here." Ouch.

As the years passed, I saw enough patterns to realize that looks can often be more important than substance. But nothing about it is "common sense."

My point is that a normal, healthy brain doesn't have some magical ability called common sense. The pre-frontal cortex is either fully-formed or it isn't. And you have either seen a lot of patterns in life or you haven't. Sometimes logic matters in our decision-making, but not often.

The idea of "common sense" feels like magical thinking to me, similar to the notion that we have a "mind" that is more than the sum of our brain's chemistry and architecture.

As a descriptor, "common sense" feels dated.

 
Rank Up Rank Down Votes:  +85
  • Print
  • Share
  • Share:

Comments

Sort By:
Feb 9, 2014
It seems to me that "common sense" is just logic that occasionally requires certain knowledge or experience. While some of us are born with logic (math), it can also be readily taught, and just as readily damaged with irrational teachings and examples. I think you can fairly well demonstrate this by looking at different upbringings, family backgrounds, and cultures.
 
 
+2 Rank Up Rank Down
Feb 5, 2014
I was certified as an EMT I in my early twenties. (Emergency Medical Technician. EMT I is the minimum qualification to drive an ambulance.) I recall during various courses that the paramedics would often refer to some process or other as "just common sense". The clear implication that the majority of members of general public were simply doofuses - and that their knowledge and skills was more innate than learned.

Many claims that something is "common sense" are similar. It is a way to claim that one's viewpoint is evidence of innate intelligence and competence - rather than the result of education or mentoring.

I have two teens - and one recent graduate from teenhood. Plus I spend a lot of time with other people's teens. It's important to talk things through in much greater detail with teens - because most of them have not figured out that actions/consequences link yet. They are capable of grasping it - but they often need help thinking things through. Assuming they know stuff and then sneering at them for dumb choices helps no one.
 
 
Feb 5, 2014
Common sense is a substitute for real knowledge. Even in the best of times, sometimes it works and sometimes it doesn't.

Currently it seems to be failing more and more because the modern world runs on BS more than ever before.
 
 
Feb 5, 2014
I watched part of the Bill Nye Creationism vs Evolution debate last night. Scott's perception of common sense seems to apply. If you were not socialized to value critical thought, you just don't see things the same way as someone who was.
 
 
+1 Rank Up Rank Down
Feb 5, 2014
Common sense is what other people demand you to think. It's a mixture of facts and fictions. It's the thing that tells you that both sun and moon are of about equal size and are orbiting the earth.
 
 
Feb 4, 2014
I had a baby face and could honestly pass for a 19 year old until I was 35. On another note, as I look back on my life, I probably never started acting like a mature adult until I was 40. I wonder if these two things are related...
 
 
Feb 4, 2014
workerant: [ They mean well (that's why they went into local politics) but the implementation of their idiocy is quite unbelievable. Examples: A council in the North West spent many thousands putting up signs telling people they were a nuclear free zone (why????). ]

But that's my point. The decisions that "common sense" drives us to make can look inscrutable when viewed outside the context in which they were made. That's what common sense IS: making decisions in a very specific context. The trouble is that that context is usually extremely ephemeral, and small changes can result in very different decisions.

Going back to my bus analogy, you might choose very different seats on the bus with just a few changes to how the people already on board were arranged. You wouldn't even think about it. In fact, it would be weird TO think about it. Imagine yourself saying, "OK, if that guy were seated two rows up from where he was, then instead of taking this seat, I would take that one." It's not a conscious thing; it can't be, or you'd literally spend your entirely life trying to make the smallest, most insignificant decisions. But the fact is that you ARE making those decisions, and the engine that drives them is what we call "common sense". For decisions that have short-term impact, like which bus seat you choose, it works great. But it can really suck if a decision having lasting impact for a lot of people was made because someone stubbed his toe, and that affected what decision he made right afterward.

If you were to go talk to those politicians and ask them, "Why did you do this?" what do you think they would say? The decision to post the signs probably seemed extremely rational in the context that they had at the time. Of course, it almost certainly would not make sense in any other context. That's where common sense leads us astray: we tend to think that other people will react the same way we do. But the fact is, even WE wouldn't react the same way if the decision came in a different context than it did the first time.

We like to think our decisions and actions are the result of a rational thought process, but most of the time they aren't. They come about as a result of an uncountable number of teeny-tiny pushes that put us in a precise frame of mind at a given time. It is really, REALLY hard to actually make rational decisions. Being aware of the process helps, but you can't ever fully get there; there is always some irrational input, something you are totally unaware of.
 
 
Feb 4, 2014
I thought common sense was using the patterns you have already learned. You might have learned them from direct personal experience, from TV, movies, reading, or talking to other people. I thought that lack of common sense was ignoring the available information, either through carelessness or by indulging in magical thinking. At least those are the patterns I associate with those terms. If your friends really complain that their kids ignore information that only their parents have, then your friends deserve a place in a future Dilbert.
 
 
+9 Rank Up Rank Down
Feb 4, 2014
Most initial job interviewers are HR with no skills. That is why appearance is important to them because they have nothing else. Some jobs also require interfacing with the public who also take appearance as skill and competence. In these cases appearance matter.
 
 
+2 Rank Up Rank Down
Feb 4, 2014
You do not have common sense, if:

1. You need too much time to think

2. You need too little time to think

3. You need to think.

Scott,

It's a no-win. Lets talk of something else.

.
 
 
+17 Rank Up Rank Down
Feb 4, 2014
My mother used to use the concept of "common sense" to belittle me and win arguments when I was in my teens. Supposedly , she's older, more experienced, she has common sense, I don't, hence she wins by default.

I knew already then that she was wrong and that experience and common sense was highly subjective and contextual, but I didn't have sufficient of my own experience to prove it. Now the table's flipped and she's just "old-fashioned", and I win all arguments by default. Totally understand why this sort of super-weapon appealed to her.
 
 
Feb 3, 2014
Or common sense could be an ability to think logically and critically about a situation. I will agree that part of common sense does have to do with understanding the norms of a society and has to be taught.
 
 
Feb 3, 2014
@emptc12

[ I dressed neatly just as I had all through school. I was shocked to see the dope-smoking hippy dippy types got haircuts and wore suits and ties. I did not recognize them. I knew about their poor study habits, drug use, abortions, and general immaturity. But guess who got the job offers? The people who do college job interviews are among the most clueless people around, I think. Too much common sense, probably.]

One of my best friends in college was very into pot and took more than one final while stoned, and SITLL did better than I did. I didn't begrudge him landing the great job. He's a VP at an aerospace corporation. He had the raw intelligence that allowed him to enjoy partying while in school, so I don't consider him lacking in common sense. It's the ones that party even as their grades fall that fail on that account.
 
 
Feb 3, 2014
delius1967, you make some excellent points about 'chameleon' politicians who adapt themselves without knowing what's going on (please correct me if I'm wrong here) but although meant as a quip, I was thinking mostly of our local politicians here in the UK who seem so devoid of common sense (what the local populace adheres to) that they are almost on another planet. I know a few of them and their ignorance and stupidity is truly staggering. They mean well (that's why they went into local politics) but the implementation of their idiocy is quite unbelievable. Examples: A council in the North West spent many thousands putting up signs telling people they were a nuclear free zone (why????). They also built a lesbian and gay centre with tax payers money without asking the lesbians or gays whether they wanted one (it wasn't used). They spent a fortune establishing an equal opportunities department only to have it fail because the people they appointed were racist. I could go on but believe me, they are brain-dead morons.
 
 
Feb 3, 2014
@emptc12

[ I dressed neatly just as I had all through school. I was shocked to see the dope-smoking hippy dippy types got haircuts and wore suits and ties. I did not recognize them. I knew about their poor study habits, drug use, abortions, and general immaturity. But guess who got the job offers? The people who do college job interviews are among the most clueless people around, I think. Too much common sense, probably.]

You are too harsh. How are the interviewers supposed to tell the difference between you and the fools you went to school with who made themselves look like winners for the interview?
 
 
+9 Rank Up Rank Down
Feb 3, 2014
To meet parental expectations, from an early age I tried to act with common sense. I got good at it. But I soon suspected common sense kept a kid from having fun. I often thought resentfully why should I be the only one not having fun? When was the big reward going to come? I continued common sensible, anyway.

And I always found that adults are really somewhat repelled by kids with common sense. They seem actually more fond of kids who act immaturely, and even give them extra attention and help. After all, Good Boys do not have TV shows or cartoon strips about them, unless they are subjected to ridicule.

So what is the incentive, given all that kids see in the world around, that would make them want to act with common sense? I think that some kids just naturally crave the approval of adults and are thus cruelly deluded thereby. The parable of The Prodigal Son, in my opinion, was always one of the most irritating, non-common sensible stories in the Bible. Oh, I understand it was a PR ad to boost adult membership in the early Church, but still…

And I had the same experience with job interviews. My school had a job placement service for graduates and alumni. I dressed neatly just as I had all through school. I was shocked to see the dope-smoking hippy dippy types got haircuts and wore suits and ties. I did not recognize them. I knew about their poor study habits, drug use, abortions, and general immaturity. But guess who got the job offers? The people who do college job interviews are among the most clueless people around, I think. Too much common sense, probably.
 
 
Feb 3, 2014
workerant: [ For a reverse definition (i.e, what it is not) of common sense, just look at politicians. ]

I know that is meant as a quip, but it's actually the opposite of true. Politicians are the very epitome of common sense -- the successful ones, anyway. This is because Scott is by-and-large correct, that "common sense" means something very different than what people think it does.

"Common sense" is the sum of knowledge that we use to navigate culture. When you get on a mostly empty bus, for example, it is common sense that tells you to take a seat in an empty row, not one directly next to one of the few others on board. It is our massive and often contradictory database for how to behave in a million different situations. It's why you feel stupid your first time in a foreign country -- you know there are rules, but you don't know what they are yet, and a lot of the time you end up offending others for reasons which seem inscrutable, weird, or just plain arbitrary. Never mind that our culture has rules that are just as weird.

This is why successful politicians are good at it: because they are extremely adept at adapting themselves in any situation, at instinctively grokking the "feel" of a room, and at looking and sounding like they are in command at all times. That's what politics IS, by and large.

Unfortunately, if you accept this definition of it, common sense is TERRIBLE thing to base any sort of policy on (which is why politicians seem so bad at creating policy -- it isn't a lack of common sense, it is a surfeit of it). Does that sound counter-intuitive? Yes, it does, because it is. We are so used to our common sense "working" in everyday situations that we automatically assume it will work in larger scopes, as well, and try to apply it there, often with disastrous results. Generally speaking, the more famous and successful people are, the more "common sense" they have, and the more infallible they believe it to be. And the more damage they can do when they are wrong.

Common sense works great when you have to make extremely pointed, tactical decisions, and you have all the data you need. Avoid that guy, he looks weird. Wow, my boss looks upset today, I better not bring up that proposal. That girl is giving me the eye, I'm going to go talk to her. Notice what all these situations have in common: you are THERE, in the scene, able to process enormous amounts of sensory data that would not be available to anyone not there. Also notice how short-term each decision is.

That's the key to why common sense fails in making abstract policy: because you aren't there. It's impossible to be "there", in fact. You don't know how people will react. You don't know what mood they will be in, what news they will have just received, what they had to eat half an hour ago that is upsetting their stomach. There are simply too many variables at play. And when you multiply it over time, your chances of getting things right go down even further.

If you want an epic example of the failure of common sense, read "Black Hawk Down". The movie was just middling, but the book is mesmerizing. It is utterly amazing how these people, whose whole job, whose entire LIVES, were consumed with understanding how to wage war, and yet still had no idea what would happen or how to deal with it when it did, because they did not understand the people on the ground, what their mood was, what they were capable of.
 
 
+10 Rank Up Rank Down
Feb 3, 2014
I don't think you can apply "common sense" to a job interview. How to dress is a trained item for the situation. How to dress for an interview being common sense is like saying the answer to the square-root of nine is three is common sense. Common sense for a job interview would be; don't show up drunk or stoned. How you dress is situational. Going to an interview for a bank, you need a suit. Going to an interview for a software engineer might be suit but probably 'dressy casual'. You go to some software companies in a suit and you would almost be rejected like going to a bank without a suit.
 
 
Feb 3, 2014
>can't decern minor variances in a pattern.

I thought of a funny example of this kind of lack of common sense. A boy about 7 or 8 came to our house looking to play with my brother. It was a cold winter's day, and my mother invited him to come inside. She stepped out of the room briefly to get my brother. When she came back in she was horrified to find the boy had opened the hall closet and was wiping the snot from his nose on the sleeve of my father's good coat! Apparently the boy had been told not to wipe his nose on HIS coat, and so he didn't.
 
 
Feb 3, 2014
For a reverse definition (i.e, what it is not) of common sense, just look at politicians.
 
 
 
Get the new Dilbert app!
Old Dilbert Blog