Common Sense

Psychology 101: The 101 Ideas, Concepts and Theories that Have Shaped Our World - Adrian Furnham 2021

Common Sense

Common sense is the best distributed commodity in the world, for every man is convinced that he is well supplied with it. (Rene Descartes, Le Discours de la method (1637), pt.1)

Common sense is the collection of prejudices acquired by age eighteen. (Albert Einstein, Scientific American, February 1976)

Most of us like to believe both that we are blessed with a good deal of common sense (whatever that may be) and that as regards to many areas of life, we are able to consistently and clearly differentiate sense and nonsense.

Do we all have common sense and if so how did we acquire it? And where do we find it? Perhaps in idioms and ’wise sayings’.

’Absence makes the heart grow fonder’ but ’out of sight, out of mind’. And what of ’You can’t teach an old dog new tricks’, but ’you are never too old to learn’. Which is common sense?

Psychological theory has been criticized in many ways:

1 Psychological science is little more than common sense. All findings and theories are unsurprising, uninformative and even tautological. Nothing is new: it has always been known.

2 Psychological science debases common sense. It takes every simple, common sense idea and through jargon renders it obscure. This suggests psychologists take common sense ideas and dress them up in pseudo-scientific terms.

3 Psychological science is often wrong. Its description of people and processes are simply not true.

4 Psychological scientists are dangerous. Their ideas and practices make them cynical manipulators of people. Psychologists have political agendas.

Much of what we ’know’ about the world is based on intuition. We have opinions, biases, hunches and misinformation that we use both in making statements about others and in deciding what we do. The following 20 statements are designed to provide you with some feedback regarding what you ’know’ about human behaviour. Read each statement and mark T (true) or F (false).

True or False?

1 People who graduate in the upper third of their university class tend to make more money during their careers than do average students.

2 Exceptionally intelligent people tend to be physically weak and frail.

3 Most great athletes are of below average intelligence.

4 All people in Europe are born equal in capacity for achievement.

5 On the average, women are slightly more intelligent than men.

6 People are definitely either introverted or extraverted.

7 After you learn something, you forget more of it in the next few hours than in the next several days.

8 In small doses, alcohol facilitates learning.

9 Women are more intuitive than men.

10 Smokers take more sick days per year than do non-smokers.

11 40-year-old people are more intelligent than 20-year-olds.

12 If you have to reprimand someone for a misdeed, it is best to do so immediately after the mistake occurs.

13 People who do poorly in academic work are superior in mechanical ability.

14 High-achieving people are high risk-takers.

15 Highly cohesive groups are also highly productive.

16 When people are frustrated, they frequently become aggressive.

17 Experiences as an infant tend to determine behaviour in later life.

18 Successful top managers have a greater need for money than for power.

19 Most people who work for the government are low risk-takers.

20 Most managers are highly democratic in the way that they supervise their people.

Questions 1, 7, 10, 12, 16 and 17 are true: the rest are false.

Source: Robbins (1991)

Cynics and sceptics tend to argue psychology is common sense dressed up as social science. ’Common sense objection’ may take three forms.

The first is that the findings and theories are well known, intuitive, unsurprising and uninformative and therefore are known to all.

The second is partly the obverse — that is, topics that are amenable to common sense should have explanations in terms of lay language and not jargon, which excludes rather than facilitates everyday understanding.

A third, related objection occurs when experimental findings of social science, in this instance work psychology, appear to contradict widely held views of human nature. Many psychological studies, which have demonstrated that people are cruel, un-insightful, self-centred, compliant or antisocial, have been criticized more than those who have painted the opposite picture.

A major problem in the social, as opposed to the natural, sciences is that the theories and concepts invented by social scientists circulate in and out of the social worlds they are required to analyse. But while lay concepts obstinately intrude into the technical discourse of social science, the opposite is also true. Hence, the most interesting and innovative ideas in the social science risk becoming banal.

In other words, the very popularity of psychology may in some sense be its undoing. The more magazine and newspaper articles describe, discuss and deliberate on psychology problems, theories and research, the more they become commonplace, obvious and commonsensical.


Furnham, A. (1983). Social Psychology as Common Sense. Bulletin of the British Psychological Society, 36, 105—109.

Furnham, A. (1989). Lay Theories. Oxford: Pergamon, UK.

Kelley, H.K. (1992). Common Sense Psychology and Scientific Psychology. Annual Review Psychology, 43, 1—23.

Robbins, S. (1991). Organizational Behaviour. (5th Edition) New York: Prentice Hall.