There is no such thing as common sense.

I came to the conclusion in my early 20’s that there is no such thing as common sense and that everything we know we were taught or learned at some point. The misconception of “common sense” comes, I think, mainly from the fact that we learn so much and so quickly that often times we are not aware that we have learned something new. Our brain takes in a new experience of some form through our senses and stores it as a new bit of information with very little conscious effort on our part in a lot of cases. After a period of time with that information rattling around in our head we think it is just natural or “common sense” that everyone should know that.

Let’s take for example the “don’t touch the stove” lesson. As youngsters we are all taught to not touch the stove because it might be hot. Of course we all do because some lessons we need to learn the hard way.

Hot Cook Top
Hot Cook Top

But once we have done it and been hurt by it, we know next time we get close to something that is radiating heat that we exercise caution around that thing because it might hurt in the same way the stove did. Hence we see this as “common sense”. The problem here is that this wasn’t something that we just divine from thin air, we had to learn through our pain. We learn this lesson so young that it is hard to comprehend that people wouldn’t know about it. However this is not “common sense”, this is actually referred to as pessimistic thinking, where we expect a bad result based on a similar bad result of the past.

To take a more extreme example of this though, think about someone born and raised in inland Australia on a remote station. They might live well into their 20’s, or later even, before they lay eyes on an ocean. We would assume that someone in their 20’s would be “smart” enough to know about the ocean and the dangers it poses. For anyone who grew up on the coast, there are a whole host of things that they have learned about the ocean that this person from inland Australia could have absolutely no idea about. In the case of surf beaches there are rips and currents, safe places to swim with lifeguards and flags to help identify those places. In the case of northern tropical waters there are jellyfish and crocodiles to consider. It’s “common sense” right? Well no it’s not.

Ocean Love
Ocean Love

This kind of lack of common sense can be witnessed every afternoon at Narrow Neck in Main Beach on the Gold Coast when the buses full of tourists pull up to let the day trippers dip their toes in the water. Every day without fail the tourists take their shoes off and in their long trousers and dresses head down to where the water is lapping the sand. As people who are not familiar with waves and “sets” they wade in ankle deep, turn their backs to the ocean to pose for their happy snap at the beach, and promptly find themselves knee or sometimes even waist deep in water. It never gets old watching it, trust me.

Most people would watch the above example unfold and say “well that was common sense that that was going to happen.” But as coast dwelling Aussies it is drilled into us from a young age about the dangers of the beach. We are taught, or learn in the same manner as the tourists, about the way waves wash up onto the beach and sets. This is referred to as social learning if we are taught or see it happen, and individual or asocial learning if we experience it ourselves.

In the same way we as “coasties” learn about the beach, so to do the “inlanders” learn about things like drought, animal management, dams, dangerous inland animals like snakes, etcetera, that coasties have no idea about. To them it would be “common sense” to not sit or walk in certain areas due to the increased risks of snakes hiding in them. To a coast dweller, not so much.

While these are very clear cut examples, it is a reality that we learn everything this same way. Something is considered “common sense” when most people in an area know it or would expect a certain outcome from a series of events. But the fact is, every single one of those people has learned that knowledge from somewhere at some point. Be it through their own experience or by watching someone else’s.

The other way people think of “common sense” is that because we know that the stove is hot because it has a heating element in it, that anything else with a heating element is also hot and could hurt us. This is actually known as deductive reasoning. It is also not necessarily true in the sense that just because it has a heating element in it, doesn’t mean that it will burn like the stove. Think electric blanket. Therefore deductive reasoning is a skill that requires not only practice like any other skill, but exposure to lots of different scenarios in order to get good at it. This means that to become good at deductive reasoning, we also need time to develop that skill, and be conscious of the fact we are doing it. We all know someone who is absolutely horrible at it, and let’s face it most people aren’t that well practiced at it.

This might seem like splitting hairs a little here, or a bit of toomateo tamarto (phonetic spelling). But i think it is a distinction that people need to be very mindful of in the workplace. Working in consulting for the last 10 years, i have had the district pleasure of working on a plethora of different sites and across a multitude of different industries with a whole host of different people. This combined with my trade background and the nature of my work has given me the time and experience to hone my deductive reasoning skills. Most people though aren’t that lucky. As someone who is often responsible for others on work sites, i am acutely aware of the fact that a lot of people might be completely oblivious to what might seem like “common sense” to me or others familiar with a site. It is because of this that i am careful to point out hazards and risks to new comers even if they seem obvious. It is also for this reason, there are safety labels on everything, safety signs all over the place and most sites, big or small, now do inductions and Job Safety Analysis forms (JSAs). Because the reality of life is there is no such thing as “common sense”. Assuming there is can, in the right circumstances, get someone hurt, or worse.

PPE Safety Sign Common Sense
PPE Safety Sign Common Sense

As always I would love to hear your thoughts on this, whether you agree with me or not. Please feel free to leave a comment below. If you think this was something that others need to hear, then hit one of the share buttons below.

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