Everything Is Obvious | Duncan J. Watts

Summary of: Everything Is Obvious: How Common Sense Fails Us
By: Duncan J. Watts

Introduction

In ‘Everything Is Obvious: How Common Sense Fails Us’, author Duncan J. Watts reveals the surprising limitations of common sense when attempting to solve complex problems. Delving into fields like urban planning, financial expertise, and history, this book summary will outline how our ingrained beliefs can lead to misguided and, at times, disastrous decisions. Prepare to explore how factors such as cultural1 differences, psychological biases, and circular reasoning can make our common sense understanding flawed. Discover how adopting uncommon sense rooted in scientific methods and strategic flexibility can help us overcome these challenges.

The Fluidity of Common Sense

Common sense, a set of shared beliefs that guide our everyday actions, can vary greatly based on cultural background. While it covers essential aspects of our lives, such as etiquettes and fairness, its interpretation is not fixed. The ultimatum game, for instance, demonstrates the cultural influence on our perception of common sense. Players in Western societies typically divide the pot equally, while those in Machiguenga tribe of Peru offer 25%. The Au and Gau tribes of Papua New Guinea propose more than 50% shares, only to see them rejected. Common sense, therefore, is not a singular truth but rather a construct shaped by one’s society, bringing unexpected outcomes when invoked to solve problems.

Common Sense Pitfalls

Common sense is a practical asset when navigating daily problems, but it can be misleading when tackling more significant, societal issues. Decision-makers, like politicians and urban planners, often rely on common sense, which leads to major mistakes. For instance, the urban planners of the Robert Taylor Homes constructed public housing based on supposedly improving residents’ socioeconomic status, but their assumptions proved inadequate. The complex developed into a poverty-stricken and gang-ridden area instead. We often approach societal matters with intuition because of our personal experiences and immersion in society. However, this predisposes us to flaws in our decision-making processes. It’s crucial to recognize that adopting evidence-based approaches, as we practice in the physical world, can be more fruitful when addressing complex social problems.

Unconscious Biases Shape Choices

Often, people unknowingly follow the default choices made available to them, allowing psychological factors to sway their decision-making process. Prime examples of such influences include priming, which uses stimuli to affect an individual’s actions, and anchoring, which establishes an arbitrary reference point to manipulate the person’s estimates. These biases cloud our judgments, making us assume that we’re acting rationally or basing decisions on common sense. However, these assumptions can lead to misinterpretations of others’ behavior, as we don’t realize how profoundly such biases impact our choices. Recognizing these unconscious influences allows us to make better-informed decisions and not fall prey to psychological manipulation.

Mystifying Mona Lisa’s Fame

The Mona Lisa, a prominent artwork in Western culture, has been the subject of numerous debates. Often, our reasoning about its significance tends to be circular, a logical fallacy where the conclusion justifies itself. A better explanation for the painting’s fame and enduring popularity can be found in the concept of cumulative advantage. This phenomenon argues that once something gains initial popularity, it continues to grow more popular over time. Research demonstrates that social influence plays a pivotal role in the ratings and appreciation given to various forms of art.

The eternal question remains: what makes the Mona Lisa so special? While it’s undeniably captivating, aren’t there other artworks equally deserving of attention? Attempting to decipher the painting’s enigmatic allure often leads us down a path of circular reasoning—a logical fallacy where we end up using the conclusion to justify itself.

For instance, one might argue that the Mona Lisa’s importance lies in its mysteriously expressive subject or its connection to a notorious art heist. But in reality, asserting that the Mona Lisa is famous because it possesses these attributes is a reinforcement of circular reasoning. We’re essentially claiming that it’s famous just because it’s famous.

Instead of falling into this trap, an alternative explanation for the Mona Lisa’s overwhelming success and popularity can be found in the concept of cumulative advantage. This theory posits that once something (like a painting, book, or song) gains initial popularity, it’s likely to continue growing more popular over time.

A compelling example of this phenomenon can be seen in a study conducted by the author and his colleagues. In a large-scale online experiment, participants were asked to rate their enjoyment of various songs. One group could see the number of times songs had been downloaded by previous participants, whereas the other group couldn’t access this information. The results revealed that social influence, as indicated by the number of downloads, significantly impacted the participants’ song ratings. Ultimately, this demonstrates how cumulative advantage and social influence contribute to the enduring fame of something—even a painting as enigmatic as the Mona Lisa.

Debunking Network Influencer Myths

The renowned six degrees of separation concept originated from a psychological experiment in 1967, where it took on average six connections to pass a message from one person to another. This led to the belief that networks rely on “hubs” or key influencers to function smoothly. However, recent experiments have challenged this view, revealing that real-life networks are more egalitarian and treat individuals more or less equally. Thus, everyone plays a crucial role in spreading information, debunking the idea of depending exclusively on influencers for reach.

In 1967, Stanley Milgram’s experiment laid the foundation for the popular notion of six degrees of separation. He observed that it took six connections, on average, for a message to be passed between people. Additionally, Milgram found that most messages went through one of three particular individuals.

This spurred the belief that networks function effectively due to key influencers or “hubs.” For instance, in marketing, the focus is often on persuading well-connected individuals to use a product and hoping they will spread its popularity.

Contradicting this view, more recent experiments utilizing real-life networks have demonstrated their “egalitarian” nature, relying less on key influencers and treating individuals almost equally. With this new understanding, we recognize that each person holds a significant role in disseminating information. Consider the marketing strategy where Kim Kardashian was paid $10,000 per tweet to promote products; perhaps a more efficient approach would have been to pay $1 to 10,000 ordinary individuals to share the message.

Common Sense Clouding History

Our innate curiosity often drives us to explore history, but our common sense can become an obstacle in truly understanding past events. Typically, we assume a direct cause-and-effect relationship between historical events, despite a lack of evidence. For example, some may attribute the decrease in violence in Iraq during 2007 to a surge of troops, neglecting other contributing factors, such as the increased involvement of the Iraqi Army. Moreover, we often search for simplistic narratives to describe historical events, failing to recognize that those who lived through them couldn’t have possibly predicted their long-term consequences and might have interpreted the events differently. Consequently, our interpretations of historical events are more like fictional stories, captivating to read or listen to but far from the true essence of past lived experiences.

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