“Common” implies that something is available to everyone, free to use by the common people as well as the educated and privileged alike. “Sense” often refers to one of the body’s senses, and their ability to perceive an external stimuli.
Over the years of life, human beings acquire many different forms of knowledge; some are harder than others to grasp, requiring decades of intensive study, while others are simple pieces of data that simply hit our brains and stick. There are many other types of wisdom, or sense, many of which are rare, while others are notoriously common.
If you’re one of the many people who have been reprimanded for lacking “common sense”, this article may be exactly what you need to read. For others, the phrase “common sense” immediately drags you back to high school history class, learning about Thomas Paine and his wordy contributions to America’s revolutionary efforts. Regardless of why you are familiar with the phrase “common sense”, it seems only natural that you should understand it. After all, it’s common sense, right?
What is Common Sense?
By breaking down the phrase into two words—”common” and “sense”—we can begin to get down to the heart of the matter. “Common” implies that something is available to everyone, free to use by the common people as well as the educated and privileged alike. “Sense” often refers to one of the body’s senses, and their ability to perceive an external stimuli (e.g., sight, smell, touch etc.). Basically, “sense” refers to an understanding of something, and the recognition of an object, based on previous or present experience.
When you put the two words together, you get “an understanding that is widely open to anyone”, or universally available intelligence. Different dictionaries and scholars have defined this foundational knowledge in different ways, ranging from “Sound and prudent judgment based on a simple perception of the situation or facts” (Merriam Webster) to “the faculty of self-evident truths” (Thomas Paine).
Historically, back in the time of Aristotle, common sense was viewed as an aspect of the animal soul, and our ability to distinguish and identify physical things apart from ourselves—a combination of our senses and our rational mind. When all of the definitions, from thousands of years ago to today, a common through-line is awareness. It suggests a self-awareness and an awareness of others that facilitates our decision-making as we move through the world.
Examples of Common Sense
Making practical decisions and sound judgments based on the facts presented in reality is an example of having “common sense”. By analyzing a scenario and making logical and clear decisions based on previous experience will result in an optimal outcome.
For example, if you are cooking dinner in a large pot and pick it up after it has been on the hob, you will burn yourself. If you do this, one might say that you lack “common sense”. It is widely known that metal objects conduct heat, and with even a rudimentary understanding of heat transfer and the process of cooking food, you would know that you require protection to avoid burning your hands when moving a hot metal pot.
Many people think of “common sense” as knowledge or ability gained through experience, rather than academic study. Therefore, when a person does something considered “nonsensical”, it is argued that they lack “common sense”.
Perhaps they have never encountered a given situation, and thus do not know how to behave in an appropriate manner, but making a “common sense” mistake can often be due to a lack of concentration, a momentary lapse in our unconscious brain.
Certain decisions do not need to be consciously debated; after multiple repetitions of a given scenario, our response or behavior becomes routine, which is a manifestation of “common sense”.
The Limitations of Common Sense
Now, it is important to differentiate between wisdom and “common sense”. The latter is only considered to be applicable in practical matters, rather than those involving emotions or abstract concepts.
Wisdom, while it does increase with experience, also includes more subjective ideas and judgments. There is no debate that walking through traffic is foolish and a threat to your safety; it is objectively dangerous and shows a lack of “common sense”. However, there is no objective proof that leaving a comfortable job and taking a risk at a bigger opportunity is a “sensible” decision. Wisdom can help to inform the latter decision, but not “common sense”.
This natural ability to make good decisions and behave in a sensible way helps you to function within society, obey social norms, keep yourself safe, properly judge situations, and develop relationships. While this sounds rather straightforward, there are many examples of people lacking common sense, or seeming to actively work against it.
This can cause conflict in every walk and scale of life. Although “common sense” is considered universally available knowledge and practicality, since every individual’s experience is different, so too is there understanding of and access to “common sense”.
Emotions vs. Logic
One of the critical issues with “common sense” is that it can sometimes rely too fully on practical judgment, removing any emotion while reaching a decision. Highly intelligent people are sometimes seen as obtuse, or lacking “common sense”, because they insist on approaching everything from a logical and pragmatic perspective. While a decision may appear to make “sense” on paper, there are some situations that require tact and context before an action should be made.
For example, imagine that you discover that your best friend’s boyfriend is cheating on her. Logic may argue that your friend should have this knowledge as soon as possible, so she can absorb and react to this information appropriately, whether that leads to a fight with her boyfriend or a full-on breakup.
However, if you are sitting at a crowded table of her friends and family members when you receive this fortuitous news, it would be inappropriate to announce the revelation at that time. Delaying the release of truth may not be logical, or an objectively good idea, but based on the context and the emotional weight of the secret, “common sense” dictates that you would wait before sharing the bad news.
This is all to say that, while “common sense” primarily applies to social norms and universally available knowledge based on practical judgment, some consideration of context and peripheral circumstances is essential. Research has shown that intelligence makes people better at supporting their own view of things, and bolstering their beliefs with facts and research, but have more base intelligence doesn’t make people more empathetic, or more receptive to the views/beliefs of others.
The Contradiction of Common Sense
As mentioned above, “common sense” is largely influenced by one’s experience in the world, but everyone’s experiences are limited and different, so the assumption that there is a baseline of rational intelligence people share is inaccurate; in fact, it seems impossible. The “common sense” developed by a teenager in the rice fields of Cambodia will be very different from the “common sense” accumulated by a Bosnian immigrant growing up in the streets of South Boston, or a closeted LGBTQ individual in Russia.
This is why the idea of “common sense” can also be dangerous, and potentially isolating. If some piece of cultural or local knowledge is treated as “common sense”, an individual’s experience regarding that topic may be seriously skewed. What is “true” in one place may not be true or socially accepted somewhere else; the idea that some things are “common sense” can result in entrenched beliefs, faith-based thinking, and a move away from logic, facts, and practical judgment—the core of “common sense”.
Ways to Boost Your Common Sense
If you are one of those unfortunate few whose “common sense” has been criticized in the past, there are a few tactics you can try to improve your standing among your peers, friends or family.
- Listen More – By admitting that you may not always be the expert on a given subject, you can learn from others, better judge the tone and mood of a conversation, and ensure that you keep your foot out of your mouth.
- Get Feedback from Others – If you struggle with your behavior or words when dealing with others, speak with a trusted mentor or friend about the situation. Ask them to keep an eye out, pay extra attention to your behavior, and give you feedback on how you’re been acting.
- Take a Personality Test – Understanding some of the driving forces behind your personality can help identify areas that might require more work or attention. A personality test can be insightful when it comes to habits and ingrained behaviors of which we may not even be aware.
- Think Before Speaking – A lack of common sense is often revealed when one speaks before thinking, or struggles to listen to others. Slow down and avoid making hasty decisions or speaking too quickly; patience can help you avoid many verbal gaffes.
- Read Books on the Subject – Self-improvement books for personal development are available for every style of reader and every personality. Focusing on interaction styles, learning about personality traits, and spending time in self-reflection can be a huge benefit to your good sense.
- Broaden Your Horizons – Given that “common sense” is based on personal experience, try stepping out of your comfort zone, exploring new beliefs and cultures, and seeing the world from the perspective of others. All of this will help to expand your personal sphere of “common sense” for the better!
- Stanford University
- National Institutes Of Health (NIH)
- American Psychological Association (APA)