When “Common Sense” Gets Stupid

16 years ago, I started my “habit” of posting daily “inspirational” quotes, using, at that time, a rather “new” phenomenon, now commonly known as the internet. I was in charge of 16 Corpsmen (Medics) on a Cardiology floor,at the San Diego Naval Medical Center, and found that leaving a short quote for them ,each morning was a simple way to give them something potentially useful to think about to start their day.

That habit continued throughout my Navy career, and followed me into my weekly newsletter I started publishing almost a decade ago-one that has been translated in the Middle East for some 5 years, now.
Somewhere along the way, I realized something very important about quotes; they are almost always contextual, and are only “true” given the mind set and circumstances of the person who wrote them, or posted them at any given time. Each one of us, when we read them, quickly looks for a situation in our own lives to apply the quote we have just read, to see whether it still makes sense.

We run into dangerous territory when we take a quote, and then make the “That’s true!” assessment about that quote. The only “safe” way I have found to read and “like” quotes, is in reminding myself “That quote is the case sometimes, and in some situations, for some people”

“Common Sense”, as it’s often called, is usually a generalization that we have picked up, agreed with, and then put our mind on “auto pilot” ceasing to think about each new situation as it arises. This makes sense on one level; it’s easier, and requires much less energy. However, it can create a “blindness” that gets us in a jam.

For example, most of us would agree with the quote “opposites attract”; we’ve all heard it, and most of us are convinced that we’ve seen countless examples that validate it as “truth”. Yet, in another situation, time, or place, we just as quickly conclude that “birds of a feather flock together”.

Clearly, these two concepts are at opposite ends of the spectrum, and do not, in any way, support one another. Why then, do so many people unknowingly believe them to both be true?

It’s really simple, actually; having a mental catalogue full of folk wisdom, quotes and clichés allows us, at any given time, to reach into our “bag of tricks”, and quickly extract a saying that will “explain” something that is going on in our life. When we are scared about a decision we need to make, we yank out the trusty “Look before you leap” quote, and suddenly, we feel justified in procrastinating.

In a similar situation, when we really want to go ahead and do something without thinking it through, we dig a little deeper and come up with “He who hesitates is lost”, and, you guessed it, we feel “smart” when we run head long into new territory.

Why do we so easily believe stupid things? That question, and that question alone, is what compelled me to earn my Master of Science degree in Psychology, and now, my Ph.D. For most of my life, when I watched myself, and other seemingly bright people around me, believing in wild and crazy ideas, I had to be able to understand it structurally.

Much of it just gets handed to us by someone else, and then, we never question it. Many adults still have very strong beliefs about teenage employment, believing that having teenagers work, or having a job of some kind is “good” for them, and teaches them many life lessons. There is one little problem, however, with this belief. Study after study have concluded that every cotton picking cultural belief adults have about teenagers working, and the benefits of it, are wrong.

In fact, work experience makes teenagers more pessimistic and less reverent of working, and the usefulness and value it has in our society. Another series of studies showed that having teenagers work, contributed to, rather than deter, several forms of delinquent behavior.

If part of you rebels or scoffs at this notion, it’s yet another indication of how “stuck” with the beliefs of our parents, and others, we have become. When we go to those who “handed” us such beliefs, and ask “How do you know?” we are often met with “Well, that’s what ‘they’ say!” Who “they” is, exactly, always seems to be just out of reach.

How about this one; many people would, after hearing “violent behavior is associated with low self esteem” would say “Of course it is, that just makes sense!” Yet, many studies in this area showed just the opposite, aggression and violent behavior are far more often linked to high self esteem. Then, of course, is the well worn belief that “we only use 10% of our brain power.

I just posted a video on this a few days ago. Neuroscientists tell us, that over the course of the day, we use 100% of our brain. Why, then, do we still hear “10%”? Because that’s what the person who told us had heard, and so on. And, you guessed it, if pushed for a resource “That’s what they say” would be a likely answer.

I was part of the “positive thinking” movement some years back, and, must say, that at times, it has merit. Just as often, though, I found it to create a confusing mess. Eventually, I stepped into “Useful thinking”, which, to the staunch supporter of “positive thinking” can seem like a horrific concept to even fathom. I can only report that my life has been so much more enjoyable and rewarding since having let go of my refusal to see things any way other than “positive”.

Those who meet me would likely come away with the feeling that I am a “positive” and “upbeat” guy; thinking critically and “usefully” as a rule, tends to head that direction, but it does not fear the thought of saying “This really sucks!”

I invite you to begin reading the many wonderful and brilliant quotes that you see posted on facebook –and elsewhere-from the perspective of “Where and when would this be true?” and “Where and when would this NOT be true?” The balance that this helps create in the way you process the world around you is something I have found to be quite liberating, and I hope you will to.

© Copyright 2010-Vincent Harris-All Rights Reserved.

http://www.VinceHarris.com

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One Comment on “When “Common Sense” Gets Stupid”


  1. While everything you are saying sounds like is pure gold – it just makes sense – we have to remember that “Not everything that shines is gold.”

    🙂


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