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4.1 out of 5 stars
4.1 out of 5 stars
Everything is Obvious: Why Common Sense is Nonsense
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on 30 April 2017
Read this and you will be able to critique almost every other book putting forward an ill-researched thesis based on major 'success stories' like Google or Facebook or Harry Potter. For example, did you know that at one stage Google tried and failed to sell out for $1.6m ?

This book documents the traps that our pattern matching brains fall into, and how we are strongly programmed to back-fit explanations onto observations. This leads us to massively underestimate the sheer randomness of events.

Luck really does play a far more important role than we all think.
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on 18 June 2013
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 study of human behaviour has been.

I thoroughly concur with the other 5-star reviewers in why this book should be read by anyone with an interest in how and why humans do things - whether hard science, leisure, sport or indeed anything else. A superb achievement.
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on 25 July 2011
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. Even though you know you're looking at an optical illusion, you still suffer from the illusion despite yourself!

Thus, as Watt's points out, we need to be very self-aware and understand how we and everyone else actually thinks. Which is why, I guess, I found Watt's book a little lacking.

I was hoping that his book would provide more of a solid framework for circumventing our intellectual weaknesses. To be fair, he does give some brief suggestions on how to test ideas in a more scientific manner (which is what his book is all about). Unfortunately for me, this latter part of the book is very light on detail and paints a picture of how to do this with very broad brush strokes.

So, in conclusion, I'm glad I read this book. I got a lot out of it and can recommend it to you.

I did think, however, that it was more of a 'How To' book than it actually is. Which should have been, I guess, obvious...
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on 23 December 2011
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. It's not just a matter of sample bias (not everyone uses the web, or uses it in the same way) but also ignores the very real possibility that the way we interact on the web is not at all like we act in other aspects of life.

A good book and well worth reading all the same. Made me think a lot about my own work as an industry analyst, and about the way in which the company where I work manages its people.
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on 14 March 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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TOP 1000 REVIEWERon 22 August 2011
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.

En route, Watts complicates a number of fashionable recent ideas concerning social relationships in our heavily mediated world; examining, for example, the question of how some YouTube videos 'go viral', and whether such phenomena really owe everything to the existence of 'super-influencers'. Once we enter this evidence-driven world, it's hard to go back to the world of common sense; but we gain a deeper appreciation of just how hard human beings work to maintain a sense of order and purpose in the face of our near-constant state of uncertainty and almost total inability to predict complex future events. This is a book that should appeal to anyone interested in social media, human networks and the implications of the ways in which we think for decision-making.

270 pages of text plus full notes, bibliography and index.
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TOP 100 REVIEWERon 21 August 2012
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] Should [end italics] we make mistakes?' but rather `[begin italics] Which [end italics] mistakes should we make in order to test our deeply held assumptions?'" This seems to be what Duncan Watts has in mind when he suggests, in the Preface, that there is much to be gained from challenging our assumptions about the world "or even more important, when we realize we're making an assumption that we didn't even know we were making...Questioning our own beliefs in this way isn't easy, but it is the first step in forming new, hopefully more accurate beliefs. Because the chances that we're already correct in anything wee believe are essentially zero."

Watts carefully organizes and presents his material within two Parts, devoting Chapters 1-6 to "Common Sense" and Chapters 7-10 to "Uncommon Sense." These are among the subjects, themes, and issues that he examines with rigor and eloquence:

Common Sense

o Why it is usually sufficient to solving immediate, everyday problems
o Why it is usually inadequate to solving complicated problems involving many people over time
o Why it can seldom explain human behavior (e.g. what motivates people and why)
o Why it tends to view (and explain) collective behavior as individual behavior
o Why understanding events of the past seldom (if ever) facilitates accurate predictions of events yet to occur
o Why "the past is far less deterministic -- and far less informative -- than it may seem

Uncommon Sense

o Why it is necessary to "build uncertainty into our strategic planning" with strategies that are robust to different versions of the future."
o Why a "measure and react approach" to the future can be preferable to relying on predictions
o Why fairness and justice should be based on "the interdependent nature of social and economic systems"
o Why the technological revolution of the Internet could help the social sciences to become more "scientific"

No brief commentary such as this can possibly do full justice to the scope and depth of information, insights, and counsel that Duncan Watts provides in this book. it is by no means an "easy read" (I re-read it and then reviewed the passages I had highlighted) but it will generously reward those who read and (hopefully) re-read it with appropriate care and if (HUGE "if") they are both willing and able to set aside their assumptions and premises (especially their favorite assumptions) about human nature in general and about what the mind is and does, in particular. Also, if (another HUGE "if") they can free themselves from what James O'Toole so aptly characterizes (in Leading Change) as "the ideology of comfort and the tyranny of custom."
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on 2 October 2013
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 so I'm not sure if this is really for the general reader... The notion of 'common sense' is something I find problematic but I'm not sure an advocate of it would have been convinced by the author that it was of little use.
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on 31 October 2011
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 how some YouTube clips become viral etc.

However, the book does NOT offer a straight forward answer! It examines how human brain tries to reach a decision. The language of the book is quite complex. Some chapters require more than one reading to grasp the conclusion. It also offers no guidance on how to improve one's common sense or how one can take better decision. Some of the concepts used for arguments like cumulative advantage etc. are quite well known to people who already read similar books on economics.

Also, nearly 40% of the book's pages are just for references!
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on 16 January 2014
Extremely interesting and well written book. I would strongly suggest to any junior researcher working in a social science field.
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