How to Develop Common Sense

Smart people do not always do things in a smart way; sometimes smart people can do irrational things like gambling away all their money on the stock market, or forgetting to take adequate clothing for a back country hike in the middle of very changeable weather. Whatever your background, training, Intellectual Quotient, or experience, common sense can be learned and applied in everyday situations. And while it may seem provocative suggesting that smart people don't use common sense, this deliberate association is merely to highlight that everyone has lapses in common sense. The more we're trained to think one way (by our workplace, family, culture, etc.), the greater the chance that sometimes we allow sloppy or auto-pilot thinking to take the place of common sense. Common sense isn't a one-stop-destination; it's a way of thinking that needs constant nourishing and application, and this article provides one way of looking at developing your common sense a little further.


1. Purpose

Familiarize yourself with the purpose and meaning of common sense. According to Merriam Webster, common sense is about exercising "sound and prudent judgement based on a simple perception of the situation or facts". This definition suggests that common sense depends on not over-complicating the situation (simple), applying experience and general knowledge to the situation (sound and prudent judgement), and implicit in this is self-trust that your considered experience is valid for future situations. Karl Albrecht calls common sense practical intelligence. He defines it as "the mental ability to cope with the challenges and opportunities of life".[2] He explains that common sense is situational, dependent on context, and that your common sense in one aspect of your life might be excellent while failing abysmally in another aspect of your life. As to the purpose of common sense, it is basically thinking that prevents you from making irrational mistakes or decisions, a thinking approach that may open your eyes to the possibility that insisting on being right prevents you from seeing the bigger picture. 

Common sense can also serve the purpose of removing you from being hidebound to rules, theories, ideas, and guidelines that would hamper or stifle the best decision in a particular situation. In other words, just because something says so, or just because it has always been done that way, is not a reason to abandon common sense about present needs and changed circumstances.

2. Understanding

2  Understand the ease with which the human mind is convinced that an idea is right contrary to indicators clearly demonstrating otherwise. We're human; we're fallible. And our brains work in certain ways as a means of providing shortcuts to ensure survival in a world where being chased by predators could end your life. In a modern world where caves and saber toothed tigers are no longer a constant companion, some of that reactive, split second judging can land us in hot water as we react instead of reflecting, assume instead of teasing apart the realities, and follow habit instead of challenging its continued utility. Some of the things our amazing mind is capable of doing to override common sense include:

Maintaining our own sense of reality out of proportion with identifiable reality. While each of us creates a reality out of our own experiences and makes sense of our world through this personal lens, for the most part, we understand that our sense of reality is only a small portion of a much larger picture. For some people, however, their sense of reality becomes the only sense of reality and they believe that they can manipulate or magically transform situations to turn out the way they want them to be. In steps irrational behavior for some, and insanity for the less fortunate.

Reflex or associative thinking. This is reactive thinking that is based simply on what we've learned through life, reenacting learned models and applying them to each new situation as it appears, without modifying the thought processes being applied. This type of thinking leads to errors in thinking because we refuse to push beyond standard associations formed in our mind about how things "should be". When we apply what we know to a present situation by reference to a similar past situation by merely applying our mind's template without adjusting for the context, we're overriding common sense. Even where this template is a bad fit, the insistent or biased mind just ignores the parts of the template that don't fit by trimming them off mentally and only seeing the parts that "match". Hence, we have our problem solved without thinking it through. This type of thinking tends to make us easily swayed by current popular theories and fads, such as the current tendency in some societies to control social opinion through inflating fears of germs, criminals and terrorists, and job unavailability.

Invoking absolute certainty. Absolutist black and white thinking about the world and others in it in a way that never allows space for doubt is often a cause for forgetting to apply common sense. For such a thinker, the "one true way" is the only way and therefore seems like common sense even though it isn't.
Pigheadedness. A simple unwillingness to be wrong. Ever. Founded on any number of reasons including insecurities, fear, incomprehension, anger, and fear of ridicule, pigheadedness is the cause of many an irrational and unjustifiable decision or action.

3. Divorce yourself

Divorce yourself from reality. This isn't an invitation to insanity. This is a request to consider that your sense of reality isn't real. What you see is what you've programmed your brain to see. And once you start down the slippery slope of self-confirmation that reality is only ever what you see it as, you're open to the possibilities of bigotry, selfishness, intolerance, and prejudice because you'll constantly seek to make everyone and everything else conform to your standard of reality, and your standard of "what's right".[3] By divorcing yourself from this one-sided reality, and learning as much as you can about how other people perceive the world and our place in it, you begin to make room for common sense to grow because your sense is built on "common" experiences, not just your own. 

Start by taking a look at your own emotions, beliefs, and practices to make sure they're not overriding your common sense. Test different scenarios in your mind to try to ascertain the practical consequences of applying the decision or action the way you want to. Is it practical, have you accounted for everything, and what will happen if things go wrong? If things go wrong, can you fix them and if you can't, what will be the consequences?

Consult with others. If your reality is clouding your judgment too much, reach out and discuss the situation with others to gain wider appreciation of their perspectives and ideas. This is most important where you are too close to a situation and any decision or action you take might be infected by your proximity.

4. Acquaint yourself

Acquaint yourself with your reflective mind. This is the part of your thinking where true common sense resides. The part that takes a bit of time out from the cleverness, the brightness, the importance of everything rushing at you right now and suggests that it's time to add a dose of cold water to the excitement. Reflective intelligence is about being able to stand back and view the bigger picture so that you realistically appraise the situation or environment directly around you rather than forcing yourself to conform to its suitability or practicing wishful thinking. After an accurate appraisal of the situation, a reflective mindset enables you to set goals that are realistic given the parameters you're working within, and to take sensible actions toward meeting those goals. Daniel Willingham cites examples of people who throw money at the stock market, or people who choose unsuitable life situations as people who made decisions or took actions without using reflective thinking. Rationalizing that external signs seem fine while ignoring complete mismatches to the person you are or the beliefs you hold is a denial of common sense. In other words, just because other people do or use something effectively isn't a sign that it will suit you too; you need to put your own reflective mind to work on each situation to decide whether it will be a fit for you, your lifestyle, and those around you directly impacted by your decisions.

Do less, think more. Siimon Reynolds says that many of us are suffering from "Obsessive Do-Itis".[4] This simply means we're obsessed with doing more all the time instead of thinking. And while we're running around frantically being busy all the time, we're not being productive and we're contributing to a culture that admires incessantly busy people. Is this common sense? Hardly. It is about working harder and longer without taking time out to reflect.
Allocate thinking time every single day, even if it's only 20 minutes. Siimon Reynolds suggests that you try this for one week, and says that at the end of it, you'll notice much reduced stress levels.[5] And your common sense will improve markedly.

5. Reacquaint

Reacquaint yourself with your rapid cognition. The previous step has just suggested that you need to reflect more before you take decisions or act. But the obvious flipside to reflection is the reality that some things need very fast thinking and rapid decisions that will produce sound results. Rapid cognition is the type of thinking that tells you that you're not going to connect with a person the moment that you meet them, or that a poorly placed ladder is going to fall sooner rather than later and needs to be shifted pronto, or that you need to quickly jump out of the way of an out-of-control car now. How do you marry rapid cognition to reflective thinking under the rubric of "common sense"? It's simple - spend your reflecting time wisely so that you will react wisely when quick thinking is required. 

Common sense builds on your reflection over past experiences, enabling you to refine your understanding of the world and how it works time and time again. This is in contrast to a person who only ever reacts on gut reactions, biases, and has failed to reflect on prior experiences. Reflection will bring about sound "gut reactions" or fast assessments of situations because your reaction is based on having taken the time to work through errors and successes of past experiences. 

Malcolm Gladwell says in Blink that "decisions made very quickly can be every bit as good as decisions made cautiously and deliberately".[6] The problem arises when we want something to be other than what it really is - falling back into our own idea of reality rather than the many realities around us. And that's when our common sense fails us.

6. Learn

Learn things that are basic common sense. There are things that every human being should know how to do and not leave to another person, things that go to the heart of personal survival, self-knowledge, and long-term health and safety. In this way, you can learn common sense through practical knowledge and application, informing you accurately when times are harder or when you must react quickly. 
Knowing how to cook and how the food gets to your table. For every person who proudly proclaims that he or she does not know how to cook, there is a person easily persuaded by others that any food is suitable for them, no matter how unhealthy or how unethically or unproductively sourced. It's no badge of honor to not know how to cook for yourself; it's often a sign of laziness or a rebellion against supposed domesticity. Knowing how to cook is basic common sense because it will ensure your healthy survival under any conditions. And, no matter how infrequently you use this skill, it's enjoyable and rewarding.

Knowing how to grow your own food. Being able to grow your own food is an assurance of self-survival. Learn the skill if you haven't already and instill it in your kids.
Knowing about nutrition. If you're cooking for yourself, and perhaps growing your own food, you'll be more connected with your body's need for healthy nutrition. Eat healthily most of the time, in moderation, and with an eye to meeting all appropriate nutritional needs for your age, gender, height, and personal conditions.

Knowing and respecting your surrounds. It's common sense to know what local conditions impact your life, from weather to wildlife. Take the time to get to know your local environment and respond to it appropriately, from adequately weatherproofing your home to removing invasive species from your garden.
Knowing how to budget and not spend more than you're earning. It's common sense to only spend what you have. Sadly, many people manage to forget this in an orgy of frequent over-spending, behaving as if a bulging credit card debt came as a complete surprise to them. Over-spending is an irrational habit, as is hiding unopened bills at the back of a closet; reining in the spending with a budget and self-restraint is common sense in action. And make sure to get all important financial decisions and agreements in writing, from loans to sales; you can never be too careful when it comes to money.

Knowing the limitations of your own body. This includes knowing which foods wreak havoc with your body, which foods work for you, knowing how many hours of sleep you need, and knowing the type of exercise that benefits your body and metabolism best; read widely but work out for yourself what harms and heals your body, as you're the real expert on this topic. Moreover, you're no superhero - ignoring bodily injuries is done at your own peril, such as continuing to carry heavy loads with an aching back, or refusing to acknowledge constant pains.

Knowing how to analyze situations and think for yourself. Instead of digesting the pulp media thrown at you every day, and ending up in a state of fear because every second news item is a crime or disaster, start thinking about the reality behind the newsfeed and start thinking about life and happenings with a healthy, open, and questioning mindset. Help free others from the fear media by teaching them how to recognize the tactics used.
Knowing how to repair items. In a world heavily dependent on disposal of items rather than repairing them, we're adding to the Earth's burden. And, we're beholden to those who manufacture items with in-built obsolescence because we've lost the ability to tinker and fix things ourselves. Learning how to fix or mend clothes, appliances, household objects, car engines, and many other items that are important to our daily functioning, is not only liberating but is also an important way to exercise our common sense.

Knowing how to plan in advance. So that you're not doing things haphazardly, more expensively, or without an idea of the consequences, learn to plan ahead. Forward thinking is always a sign of good common sense, as is being able to review the consequences of different outcomes.
Knowing how to be resourceful. Resourcefulness is the art of "making do"; it's about taking small things and making them go a long way with a little imagination and elbow grease. It's about being able to thrive under difficult conditions and still prosper and not feel deprived. Resourcefulness is a key part of using common sense, and again, it's a skill that liberates you from consuming to live.

Knowing how to connect with community. It's common sense to be a part of your community; unfortunately many people prefer to bunker down and remain aloof or unhindered by the others around them. Connecting with others in your community is part of being human, of relating, and of opening yourself up to sharing and generosity.

Knowing how to keep safe. Whether you're in public or at home, safety is a matter of common sense. Pushing saucepan handles away from you on the stove, looking both ways when crossing the street, walking with a friend or group in dark areas of the city at night instead of being alone, etc. All of these are common sense safety actions that can be planned for and put into action before anything harmful happens; and doing so will often avert problems altogether. Think prevention, not disaster.

7. The New You

Put new commonsense thinking habits into place. Take the philosophy, the psychology, and the popular theories behind how we think and add this understanding to the active ways in which you can use your common sense. Read How to think "outside of the box" to get some great ideas for restoring your sense of relying on your own innovative thinking processes. And Karl Albrecht suggests that the following methods will help to keep your practical intelligence (common sense) in top shape (and it's recommended that you read his book in its entirety):[7]

Practice mental flexibility. This is the ability to stay open-minded and to listen to other people's notions and ideas, even if they scare you or derail your own thinking. It does you good to practice mental elasticity and to stretch yourself beyond the things you think you know already.

Use affirmative thinking. This is the way of perceiving yourself and others in a positive manner, always looking to see the best in others and yourself, and making constant conscious decisions about who or what you will allow yourself to be influenced by, and what you will consider worthy of devoting your thinking time to. This isn't as simplistic as chanting affirmations or thinking happy thoughts; the mental work required to maintain an affirmative, conscious mindset is hard but rewarding.

Rely on semantic sanity. This is about using language to support clear thinking freed from dogma.
Value ideas. This concept leads you to accepting new ideas rather than immediately knocking them on the head as unfamiliar, insane, or undoable. How do you know they don't match your viewpoint until you've worked through them? Equally, valuing ideas encapsulates the need to reflect often, for without adequate time for reflection, you'll fail to come up with your own ideas.

8. Practice

If you put in the constant hard yards of thinking things through carefully for yourself as well as learning all that you can about the world and other's thoughts about the world, you're well placed. You don't have to be highly educated; you do have to be open-minded and curious. And realize that this is a process, not a destination. You will have to make the mental effort throughout your life as to which messages you absorb and which people you allow to influence your thinking. Even this article is but one source of guidance on common sense – analyze it, critique its applicability to your own circumstances, and cherry pick, discard, or adopt those things that suit you or don't fit with you. 

After all, doing so just makes plain common sense.


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