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Everything is Obvious: How Common Sense Fails [Hardcover]

Duncan J. Watts
4.0 out of 5 stars  See all reviews (10 customer reviews)
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Book Description

1 July 2011
Why is the Mona Lisa the most famous painting in the world? Why did Facebook succeed when other social networking sites failed? Did the surge in Iraq really lead to less violence? And does higher pay incentivize people to work harder? If you think the answers to these questions are a matter of common sense, think again. As sociologist and network science pioneer Duncan Watts explains in this provocative book, the explanations that we give for the outcomes that we observe in life-explanations that seem obvious once we know the answer-are less useful than they seem. Watts shows how commonsense reasoning and history conspire to mislead us into thinking that we understand more about the world of human behavior than we do; and in turn, why attempts to predict, manage, or manipulate social and economic systems so often go awry. Only by understanding how and when common sense fails can we improve how we plan for the future, as well as understand the present-an argument that has important implications in politics, business, marketing, and even everyday life.

Product details

  • Hardcover: 352 pages
  • Publisher: Atlantic Books (1 July 2011)
  • Language: English
  • ISBN-10: 1848872143
  • ISBN-13: 978-1848872141
  • Product Dimensions: 15.6 x 3.2 x 23.4 cm
  • Average Customer Review: 4.0 out of 5 stars  See all reviews (10 customer reviews)
  • Amazon Bestsellers Rank: 411,190 in Books (See Top 100 in Books)

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Product Description


'Every once in a while, a book comes along that forces us to re-examine what we know and how we know it. This is one of those books.' Dan Ariely, New York Times bestselling author of Predictably Irrational

About the Author

Duncan Watts is a principal research scientist at Yahoo! Research, and a former professor of sociology at Columbia University. His research on social networks and collective dynamics has appeared in a wide range of academic journals, including Nature, Science, and the American Journal of Sociology. He is also the author of two previous books, Six Degrees: The Science of a Connected Age; and Small Worlds: The Dynamics of Networks between Order and Randomness. He lives in New York.

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Customer Reviews

Most Helpful Customer Reviews
26 of 27 people found the following review helpful
Format:Hardcover|Verified Purchase
Brief Review

Buy this book for an easy-to-read and solidly researched guide into how human beings think and make decisions. Do not, however, expect to discover much substance on how to correct or manage these cognitive flaws.

Longer Review

Duncan Watts has written an important book that should be read by managers, politicians and leaders of every kind. Although it won't be because these are just the sort of people who DON'T think they need this sort of help!

The key message I took away was that 'common sense' (Watts describes what this can be thought of) is useful in our everyday lives. However, despite the value we place on it, our simple, intuitive understanding of the world is simply not good enough when it comes to explaining the past, understanding the present or planning for the future. Or, in other words, we should not reply upon our simplistic mental models to explain the world.

Thus, the world is far more complex than our brains can comprehend.

Whilst this might sound obvious, Watts demonstrates time and time again how people and organisations have relied on pretty flaky thinking in a wide variety of settings. And whilst I'd read about many of these type of cognitive failings before, it was enjoyable to read Watt's take upon them.

The difficulty for us - including you and me dear reader - is that, even though we may know about these cognitive failings, we are still going to suffer from them. This is the way our brains, all of our brains, are wired. This is how we think and decide. Indeed, the cognitive failings Watts describes are a bit like those A-level Psychology optical illusions you're probably familiar with.
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6 of 6 people found the following review helpful
5.0 out of 5 stars An excellent contribution 14 Mar 2012
Cautions to other readers first (some prompted by previous reviews), although personally I've given it 5.

Caution 1: If you've got a background in Sociology or Social Psychology, + knowledge of Complexity Theory, most of the individual insights shouldn't surprise you much - although there's some nice empirical stuff you may not know of. However see the positives.

Caution 2: It's not a magic-bullet "Here's the problem and how to circumvent it" manual in the style of Management Guru books - face it people that's a dead end.

Caution 3: I don't think it's a book for anyone with a strict judgemental belief system.

Positives: It brings a number of lines of thought together very, very well. Not magic bullets, but the best consciousness-raising guide for the various messes which might be worrying people who read this review. A great help for making sense of a troubled world.

If you have ever thought that certain people must be wrong because they are being too simplistic about complex problems - Radio Jocks, politicians doing soundbites, journalists talking about controversial topics, your boss who has just been on a strategy workshop ... this book might be a great source of sanity.
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4 of 4 people found the following review helpful
By Jezza
Guess it reflects the zeitgeist that (a) it's even necessary to write a defence of doing social science, and that the term 'science' can be properly applied to the study of social phenomena and (b) that this gets written by someone from Yahoo! research. Who even knew that Yahoo! had a social science research department. Every so often Watts lets the cat out of the bag by referring to 'social and marketing' scientists, but this is a decent book nonetheless.

It explains well why social science is worth doing, and why it's not the same as physics. It presents some useful insights into what we can actually learn from sociology - the book is worth reading for the discussion of the 'obvious' conclusions of the American Soldier study. It's mainly liberal in both senses of the word - a wide ranging survey from a human-centred perspective that is concerned with fairness in the egalitarian sense. Some hopeful insights into homophily (why we hang out with people like ourselves). Some good stuff about how intuition and 'automatic thinking' can be misleading.

If I have a big disagreement it's with his faith in the web, and social networking, as a research tool. His closing words are: "Merton was right: Social Science still has not found its Kepler. But three hundred years after Alexander Pope argued that the proper study of mankind should lie not in the heavens but in ourselves, we have finally found our telescope." This is kind of moving, but I don't think it's right. Research on the web is interesting and can point to lots of interesting phenomena, but it's not the same as studying humanity.
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4 of 4 people found the following review helpful
By Paul Bowes TOP 500 REVIEWER
Duncan Watts is a physicist-turned-sociologist currently employed by Yahoo, with a particular interest in the sociology of social interactions and networks. 'Everything Is Obvious' deals with the phenomenon of common sense understanding: how it functions as the default model by which we understand the world; how often it lets us down; how misleading it can be when applied in realms to which it offers only the appearance of insight.

In his professional life, Watts has been able to take advantage of the internet's ability to provide access to large pre-existing virtual communities, and comprehensive data concerning their interactions in real time, to conduct previously impractical experiments. The results have interesting things to say not just about the new social media but about human interaction in general and our inveterate habits of mind.

Watts' background in the physical sciences gives him an unusually keen appreciation of the criticisms frequently levelled at the social sciences - that they are not truly scientific, or 'rigorous', produce no general laws, and often seem to labour to produce results that common sense would have suggested anyway. In the light of these concerns he addresses the nature of what we call 'common sense' and exposes its peculiar blindnesses - its vulnerability to the 'halo effect', its persistent habit of retrospective rationalisation, its sheer inapplicability to scenarios that cannot be repeated and so do not yield to experience, its predictive failures - and in the process defends his discipline from misunderstandings rooted in a 'common-sense' - but unfair - understanding of its scope and abilities.
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Most Recent Customer Reviews
5.0 out of 5 stars Read it!
Extremely interesting and well written book. I would strongly suggest to any junior researcher working in a social science field.
Published 9 months ago by Marco Pelliccia
3.0 out of 5 stars Not what I was expecting
Not realy sure what I was expecting but it all got a bit bogged down for me. I have a postgrad degree in social science and I found parts of this a bit like wading through custard... Read more
Published 13 months ago by Freethinker
5.0 out of 5 stars Fantastic - everyone should read this
Watt's book is the first work concerned explicitly with sociology I have read. Having been a career scientist, I realised on reading this superb book just how narrow my view on the... Read more
Published 16 months ago by Dr. Geoffrey Kemball Cook
3.0 out of 5 stars Book Review
Not what I expected but have passed the book on to someone else who was very interested to read it.
Published 17 months ago by Amazon Customer
5.0 out of 5 stars How we can "revolutionize our understanding of ourselves and how we...
As I began to read this book, I was reminded of a passage in Paul Schoemaker's latest book, Brilliant Mistakes: "The key question companies need to address is not `[begin italics]... Read more
Published on 21 Aug 2012 by Robert Morris
2.0 out of 5 stars Complex book
The product description of this book is somewhat misleading. I thought it would explain many of the current events with a clear logic behind them like why Monalisa is so famous or... Read more
Published on 31 Oct 2011 by Mobi
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