Psychology and Common Sense: Psychology can be understood as the science of human behaviour that seeks to understand how human beings feel, perceive, think, learn, interact and understand themselves and the world around them. It is a science that studies observable and measurable human behaviour and also the human mind, both the conscious and the unconscious. Since all of us as individuals are constantly attempting to understand each other’s actions, motivations and attitudes, there is a tendency to dismiss psychology as common sense. While psychology is a science that derives its assumptions and theories based on scientific knowledge that is generated from research and experiments, common sense remains a term given to shared beliefs or notions about the social and physical world that are not formulated through systematic testing. It may range from routine knowledge about the world such as ‘sugar is sweet’ and ‘grass is green’, to common sense perceptions such as stereotypes and prejudices that are a result of generalisation. Although unscientific, common sense is based on reason and is therefore elevated to a position of high value, which leads some people to believe that there is no difference between common sense and psychology. However, unlike psychology, common sense has no theoretical basis and is solely based on past human experience which can truly be misleading when arriving at conclusions.
Milgram Experiment: Common Sense Versus Psychology
The assumptions of common sense often lie in stark contrast to the findings of psychological research. An example that highlights such incongruence is the infamous Milgram Experiment that was conducted by Stanley Milgram of Yale University. It was a series of social-psychological experiments that began in 1961 and sought to study obedience. The 40 male participants were assigned either the role of a ‘teacher’ or a ‘learner’. The teachers had to conduct memory tests for the learners. For every wrong answer, the teacher would have to administer an electric shock to the learner using a button. After every wrong answer, the intensity of the shock would be increased by 15 volts up to a maximum of 450 volts. What was not known to the teachers was that the learners would not receive any shock and all the ‘learners’ were actually actors who would convey the pain and trauma of the supposed shock through their acting. Before conducting the experiment, Milgram reached out to experts and amateurs to predict the result of the experiment, all of who had a similar prediction; virtually nobody would administer an electric shock of 450 volts for failing a memory test. To their surprise, Milgram’s experiment revealed that, on average, nearly 50% of the participants would go as far as administering the maximum punishment (“Differences between psychology and common sense”, 2015).
The lesson here is that despite the shared assumption that almost nobody would be willing to torture someone for giving incorrect answers on a memory test, especially since such actions would cause great internal conflict with an individual’s personal conscience, close to half of the participants in a scientific study obeyed the directions of the experiment. As opposed to assumptions of common sense, through this experiment, we can draw inferences about human behaviour that can be definitively applied in other contexts.
The problem posed by excessive reliance on common sense is that it provides us with a false sense of understanding of social and physical environments. However, the study of psychology challenges our assumptions and preconceived notions to find scientific answers to the questions posed by peculiar occurrences in our surroundings.
Importance of Common Sense
This is not to say that common sense is an entirely useless element of our cognitive processes. It aids us in making practical decisions by accounting for the potential consequences of our actions. It also becomes preferable to surround ourselves with individuals who subscribe to the same set of common-sense beliefs as us. Common sense can be considered a valuable resource as it becomes virtually impossible to process and function without certain essential common-sense ideas. It is common sense to look both ways before crossing the road, to turn off the gas after we finish cooking and not to approach wild animals. It is a sense that is cultivated over time and is therefore prized.
Common Sense and Psychology in Society
As social beings that are born, raised and shaped by culture, we must also understand common sense as a cultural sense that refers to a shared set of beliefs that owe their roots to the culture they originate from. For example, while it may seem evident that violence against women is a deplorable act, some cultures make allowances for certain situations wherein such actions are justified. Similarly, a considerable amount of the population subscribes to the idea that money is a source of contentment because abundance makes people happy. In contrast, another section of human beings recognise money as a source of tyrannical power and, therefore, alternatively subscribe to more socialistic ideas. On the other hand, research finds that the power of gratification possessed by money becomes extinct beyond a certain threshold. The cited examples are, in fact, a set of shared cultural beliefs that fall under the umbrella of common sense. These are important to acknowledge because such variations can assist behavioural and social psychologists in conducting better research. As a discipline, psychology also varies cross-culturally and is therefore similar to common sense in that respect. The difference, however, is that while common sense considers the beliefs, psychology analyses them to find the influences that shape such views, the consequences of assenting to such belief systems and how such beliefs and attitudes can be altered. We can, therefore, look at common sense as a resource that psychologists can tap into so that they may derive scientific knowledge out of it.
The practicality of common sense, although attractive, must be viewed with caution because of its potential to be misleading. While we acknowledge the shortcomings of common sense, recognising it as an asset to understanding more complex ideas is pertinent. Common sense and psychology must work in tandem in order to generate new bodies of relevant knowledge.
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Taylor, D. (n.d.). The importance of common sense. Amazing People. https://www.amazingpeople.co.uk/importance-common-sense/.