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Everything is Obvious

How Common Sense Fails Us

By Duncan J. Watts
19-minute read
Everything is Obvious: How Common Sense Fails Us by Duncan J. Watts

Everything Is Obvious offers insights into the failures of the most commonly used method of explaining human behavior: common sense. By offering sound solutions to common sense reasoning, this book gives the reader the tools to better attempt to understand human behavior.

  • Anyone who wants a better approach to explaining or predicting human behavior
  • Anyone involved in policy making or business strategy

Duncan J. Watts is a principal researcher at Microsoft Research and well known for his work on network science. He has also authored the bestseller Six Degrees: The Science of a Connected Age, and was formerly a professor of sociology at Columbia University.

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Everything is Obvious

How Common Sense Fails Us

By Duncan J. Watts
  • Read in 19 minutes
  • Contains 12 key ideas
Everything is Obvious: How Common Sense Fails Us by Duncan J. Watts
Synopsis

Everything Is Obvious offers insights into the failures of the most commonly used method of explaining human behavior: common sense. By offering sound solutions to common sense reasoning, this book gives the reader the tools to better attempt to understand human behavior.

Key idea 1 of 12

What we consider to be “common sense” varies strongly across societies.

How do you know that you shouldn't hop onto the subway if you’re not wearing pants? Or that you shouldn’t cheat someone out of their money? The answer is common sense, i.e., a set of shared beliefs that we gather during our everyday lives.

Common sense can define everything from knowing which side of the escalator to stand on to treating people fairly.

Interestingly, however, what some of us in the West consider to be common sense does not apply in the same way in other cultures.

For example, the way people play the ultimatum game is significantly different across cultures.

In the ultimatum game, one player proposes a division of $100 between herself and the other player, offering the second player anything from nothing to the entire $100. The other player then chooses to either a) accept the offer so that both players get the money as proposed, or b) reject the offer, so that both players get zilch.

Several studies have found that in Western societies players generally made a “common sense” evaluation of what a fair division should be, and proposed a 50–50 split. Offers short of $30 were usually rejected.

However, when members of the Machiguenga tribe in Peru played the game, they tended to offer the other player only 25 percent of the total amount, and virtually no offers were rejected.

Conversely, the Au and Gau tribes of Papua New Guinea preferred to make offers that were even better than 50–50, and yet these generous offers were rejected with the same frequency as unfair offers.

This shows us that, although we may be unaware of this fact, common sense is not set in stone – rather, it is a product of our particular society. This distinction matters, because as we will find out when we invoke common sense to solve society’s problems, we don’t always get the results we expected.

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