Common sense is often wrong

27 10 2009

Yeah, you heard me.

On growing up, and entering paid employment, one of the biggest disappointments I faced was discovering how little expertise there truly was in most of the working world. As a child, I blithely assumed that adults doing their jobs Really Knew all about their jobs. Turns out, most people use a combination of common sense, trial, and error.

There’s just one problem. Common sense is often wrong.

The human brain is an absolutely incredible processing device. At some things, like reading other people, it’s so fast and accurate that you can form an accurate impression of someone’s intelligence in less than 60 seconds, not to mention subconsciously process a host of other signals that the person is giving out. (Some correctly, some wrongly, but hey, nobody’s perfect.)  But at some things, unfortunately, we’re very bad. We’re inclined, for instance, only to seek out information that supports the view we already have (the confirmation bias). And to see what has happened in the past as far more predictable than it really was (hindsight bias). Add all of these up, and our intuitive psychology about how other people will react is, unfortunately, often way off base. For instance, you might think that taking young offenders to adult prisons to try and “scare them straight” is a good idea, right? Wrong. It increases reoffending rates, not decreases them.

For an example that affects every one of us in organizations: It’s often assumed that, if we pay people more to do particular things, they’ll do more of that thing. In reality, some research has shown that financial incentives erode people’s intrinsic motivation for tasks; the more you pay someone to do something, the more they assume that the task isn’t intrinsically worth doing – otherwise, why would you have to pay them? Studies have found a link between increased pay and increased performance quantity, but not performance quality – in other words, you can get people to do more of certain things, but not necessarily to do it better.

Beware of making decisions just because they’re “common sense”. It’s often not quite that simple.

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