Careers and Common Sense

Still in the interest of trying to get something going from those of you who may be viewing out there, let’s approach the topic of careers and common sense. More specifically, I’m talking to parents, students, school-leavers, high school guidance counselors, dissatisfied employees and others facing a difficult career decision. I would like to hear about your personal experience and how “common-sense” has guided your decisions. Hopefully, this will provide a bridge for introducing theory and illustrating its value. Really, theory is very cool. Stephanie, I would imagine that you are cringing at the term “common-sense,” but hold on. I’m going to address in a minute.

Common sense and careers: Questions to get us started:1) When you were a child, did you ever have a dream occupation that people discouraged you from because it wasn’t right for you — i.e. because of your gender, personality, etc? For example: “No you can’t be a doctor because you are a girl; everyone knows women can only be teachers or nurses.”
2) If you are a parent, are you absolutely convinced that your child is making a right or wrong career choice? Example: “Jimmy is a decent basketball player; but he has no hope of going pro, so he needs to finish college.”
3) If you are a prospective graduate or new hire, have you received career advice from someone who told you that you were absolutely making the wrong decision? Example: “You can’t hope to rise through the ranks of management if you are a woman and intend to start a family within the next few years.”
4) If you are already-careered, can you look back on your career decisions and see one or more “obvious” places where you were either wrong or right? Example: “I never should have majored in computer science because all of the jobs in my area are now being outsourced.”

The above statements in quotes may or may not seem like common sense, but it’s much more interesting and useful if we examine them with theory – so maybe someone out there will give us a personal example to work with for subsequent posts.

But now… to common sense:

If you answered “yes” to any of the above questions, it would not be surprising to hear that, at some point, someone has told you, “That’s just common-sense.” And don’t we all feel a little stupid when we hear that – like it’s something that everyone else knows but we’re not smart enough to have been endowed with such a fundamental, creator-given basis of knowledge.

Really Now, What is Common Sense?
But what is common sense really? We can turn to the academic literature for some interesting takes on that question.

In an article examining common sense in relation to management, Albanese (1970) offers that people believe that common sense: 1) Implies that “no additional study is required,” 2) is “the intelligence expected of adult persons in practical affairs,” 2) is “obvious knowledge that everyone seems to possess as a result of being alive and having gone through some experiences.” Consistent with that description, Allyn & Bacon (2000) say it’s what people perceive as “It just makes sense.”

If Albanese and Allyn and Bacon are correct, this doesn’t cast a great deal of credibility on the term common sense – and doesn’t suggest much hope of acquiring it for those who don’t have it.

But let’s try to get closer to what it really is or isn’t – and that’s something we can actually look at. Liefooghe (2003) tells us that common sense is not an evidence-based approach. Allyn & Bacon (2000) say that it’s an alternative to research in learning about the social world.

Common Sense Unmasked
An interpretive study by Fearfull (2001) actually looked at clerical workers in an attempt to understand what managers and workers meant when they said some workers had common sense, but others didn’t. What she found is pretty interesting. Turns out that no one could actually define what he or she meant by “common-sense;” however, everyone seemed to be able to identify those who had it versus those who did not based on job competence.

After analyzing interviews with subjects, Fearfull discovered that what was being called common sense was actually knowledge distilled from hands-on experience. Older workers who seemed to perform instinctively had knowledge gained when certain clerical tasks requiring customer interaction were still performed manually. When these activities were transitioned to use of a computer system, the older workers didn’t miss a beat. They weathered the change flawlessly because they understood the reason behind the methods they were still using. However, the new-hires who had not had the benefit of doing things “the old way,” were basically dazed and confused – and they knew it. They lacked the underlying knowledge gained from the experience that seemed to be second-nature to their colleagues. So here, common sense turned out to be “a depth of understanding arrived at through experience.”

Albanese (1970) has a similar view. He says that common sense “comes from knowledge gained through experience and that developing it takes time.” (It’s worth noting here as a brief digression, that this appears to have some similarity to “thin-slicing” or “rapid cognition” described by popular writer Malcolm Gladwell in his best-selling but not peer-reviewed “Blink.” I add this here in case this connection should pop into the minds of “Blink” readers as it’s a popular book and a fun read. But, after taking an admittedly quick look through the academic literature, I couldn’t find any peer-reviewed writings that used the terms “thin-slicing” or “rapid cognition.”).

The Perils of Common Sense
Back to common sense: If the perils of it are not becoming clear by this time, then let’s look at them head on and ask, “What’s wrong with common sense?”

Well, here’s “what.”
● Although it may be useful in daily life, common sense can allow logical fallacies to slip into one’s thinking. Though it’s sometimes correct, “it can also contain errors, misinformation, contradiction and prejudice.” (Allyn & Bacon, 2000).

● Different parties may have different but equally valid and legitimate opinions of what constitutes common senses. Au (2006) pointed this out with regard to environment impact assessment policy in Hong Kong. So, this begs the question: “Whose common sense are we talking about: Yours or mine?”

● Finally, and I love this one, Albanese (1970) quotes Kant (1968) who says that common sense is “one of the subtlest inventions of modern times by which the emptiest talker may coolly confront the profoundest thinker and hold out against him.”

I hope that we have by now cast doubt on the validity of common sense (in the form of well-meaning advice) to tell you what you should do with your life – and that we can now move on to what science can do for you. On this, Liefooghe (2003) quotes the delightfully acerbic personality and trait theory researcher/writer Gordon Allport (1985) who says, “science has the aims of understanding, prediction and control above the levels achieved by unaided common sense.” Paraphrasing, science seeks to do better than common sense in helping us understand, predict and control our world. (Note: I’m attaching a list of readings by Gordon Allport because his writing is as clever and entertaining as his research is enlightening.)

Dear reader, if you have made it this far, then maybe you have an ill-advised common-sense-grounded career experience to share. If not, we’re running out of lead-ins, and I may have to start introducing theory by talking about my own career.


Want to know more?
Albanese, R. (1970). Management and common sense. S.A.M. Advanced Management Journal. 35:77-81.

Allyn & Bacon. (2000). Science and Research. In W.L. Neuman (ed), Social Research Methods: Qualitative and Quantitative Approaches. Needham Heights, MA.

Au, E. (2006). ‘Common sense’ means different tings to different people. Impact Assessment and Project Appraisal. 24: 14-15.

Fearfull, A. Using interpretive sociology to explore workplace skill and knowledge. International Journal of Social Research Methocology. 8: 137-150.

Gladwell, M. (2005). Blink, The Power of Thinking without Thinking. Little, Brown & Company: New York, Boston.

Liefooghe, A. (2003). Organizational analysis subject guide. University of London Press: London.

Secondary References
Allport, G.W. (1985). The historical background of social psychology. In G. Lindzey & E. Aronson (eds), Handbook of Social Psychology. New York: Random House.

Kant, I. (1968). Philosophy of Common Sense. Encyclopedia Britannica. 6: 66-67.

Additional Readings by Gordon Allport
Allport, G. (1921). Personality and character. The Psychological Bulletin. 18: 441-455.

Allport, G. (1924.) The study of the undivided personality. The Journal of Abnormal Psychology and Social Psychology. 19:132-141.

Allport, G. (1927). Concepts of trait and personality. Psychological Bulletin. 24: 284-293.

Allport, G. (1931). What is a trait of personality. The Journal of Abnormal and Social Psychology. 25: 368-372.

Allport, G. (1966). Traits revisited. American Psychologist. 21:1-10.

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