Sociology: helping us move beyond common sense (and individualistic) understandings of the world

This overview of the recent book Everything is Obvious Once You Know the Answer: How Common Sense Fails Us does a decent job in explaining why sociology helps us move beyond common sense understandings of the world:

This thought-provoking book challenges the universal belief that management decisions based on common sense – rooted in best practices, hunches and experiences – often lead to the best outcomes.  According to the book, the reality ends up being quite different.  Relying too much on common sense often leads well-intentioned and intelligent people to make poor strategic and tactical decisions in areas such as capital investments, product introductions, new market entry and advertising decisions.

Watt’s supposition is that people give too much credence to their prior and accumulated experiences, history in general and what they perceive as best practices when making decisions.  According to the research, a person’s common sense is faulty for a number of reasons:  it contains intrinsic bias; it is based on unproven or wrong assumptions and; it is too difficult to deduce clear-cut conclusions and action steps from an environment that is overly complex or unclear…

Relying on common sense for decisions or to make predictions has dangerous implications.  For one thing, reality is usually very different from what was first imagined.  The future is quite complex and rarely reflects the same conditions that earlier decisions were based on.  As a result, it is highly unlikely positive outcomes will repeat themselves if the individual relies solely on history.  In my consulting experience,  the higher degree of uncertainty around a decision or potential outcome, the more likely senior executives will rely on subjective criteria like common sense or best practices as a basis for decision making.

I’ve made a similar argument to students: we tend to operate on a day-to-day basis by seeing things in terms of how we have seen or experienced them before. We make patterns out of things (we are pattern-making creatures) that have happened to us regardless of the amount of information to back up our conclusions. New information is then filtered through these older constructs. When confronted with new information that doesn’t “fit,” we have to ignore it, fit it into our old constructs, or develop new constructs.

Thinking sociologically means that we move beyond this individualistic level in a couple of ways:

1. We try to take a broad overview, recognizing that the world is complicated and many things are related. Instead of just thinking about how something affects us, we look at how systems are connected and social processes take place. The question is more “how does the whole affect the individual” rather than “how does the individual fit within the whole.”

2. Conclusions should be based on data that is collected and analyzed in ways that minimize individual level bias. Though we often are unable to create perfect models or understanding, we can make good estimates.

I may have to try out this description with my students to see what they think.

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