Common Sense as a Plausible Narrative

We human beings have a compelling need to make sense of the world. When provided with a statement or a possible fact, we can frequently come up with an explanation for it. Say, for example, you were told that men with rural backgrounds were usually in better spirits during army life than men from city backgrounds. You could come up with the narrative that rural men were accustomed to harsher living standards and more physical labor than city men, so army life was easier for them. This is a reasonable explanation, one that conforms to commonsense, correct? Now suppose you were told that it was city men who were usually in better spirits during army life. You could probably just as easily come up with the narrative that city men are more used to working in crowded situations, and in corporations with chains of command, strict standards of clothing and social etiquette. Again, this sounds like common sense, correct? (actually the second narrative is more in correspondence with the facts at least during World War 2) What is regarded as common sense usually is a plausible narrative that has been generally accepted. This narrative conceals the true explanation.

Another example coming from Watts Everything is Obvious is an exercise Duncan Watts did with his students. In one country 12% of its citizens had signed up for organ donation after they died. In another country 99.9% of the citizens had signed up for organ donation. Watts asked what could account for this difference. His class was agile and creative in coming up with explanations. There were narratives regarding differences in their legal or educational systems. Or that something had happened in one country that galvanized organ donation. Now the two countries were Germany and Austria, countries that are quite similar to each other. Austria had the 99.9% rate and Germany the 12% rate. The difference between the two questions is that in Austria the option was to opt out of organ donation, with the default being organ donation. In Germany the option was to opt for organ donation, with the default being to not choose organ donation.

This is a common finding that being that the default option is strongly preferred. This has been found with respect to pension programs and other benefits, not only for donations or deductions. Indeed, this is a strategy for nudging people to take the desirable option. The reason is that the default is the easier option. Opting in or out requires thought and effort.

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