Saturday, July 9, 2011

Just common sense

The book "Everything Is Obvious Once You Know the Answer" by Duncan J. Watts has a title that got my attention.  I wasn't sure why anyone would use such a title.  I found the author is Australian, has a degree in physics and later got a degree in sociology.  

He mentions having gotten interested in the subtle business of the world of people and had just gotten his sociology doctorate when a friend gave him an article that boasted the social sciences were in a muddle.  The author alleged that a small group of sharp physicists could straighten all those subjects in a trice.  He noted that many people assert that findings in the social sciences were rarely of much interest and were generally just "common sense".  

He discusses the rules of life in various cultures and gives some very interesting examples of rules that are always followed but are not explained or explicit.  A sociologist asked his students to approach passengers on the subway and request them to give up their seat so that the requester could have it.  They reported that it was very difficult to do and the sociologist himself tried it.  He found it indeed upsetting and literally nauseating.

Another basic rule, at least in our culture is that one only sits or stands close to others in a subway car if it is quite crowded. To go and stand very close when it isn't crowded breaks the rules (and I guess it would invite trouble.)  A third example of an important but implicit rule is that all the passengers in an elevator stand facing the door of the car.  It would be a violation of the rules if someone faced the other way.

Watts reports that the sociologist Paul Lazarsfeld wrote an article describing a large study and explained the findings.  There were six and he explained how all 6 accorded with common sense.  Then, he revealed that the actual study had found just the opposite of the six statements he had given.  Thus, the title.  Humans are very good at integrating a story or a principle with their general beliefs once they put their mind to it.  Watts shows that common sense and implicit understandings can be dramatically different from one setting or one culture to another.

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