Do you know people who seem to lack common sense?
Do their actions boggle your mind or leave you feeling frustrated?
Have you ever found yourself asking how they’ve managed to make it this far through life doing the things that they do?
It’s safe to say that you and everyone else on this planet has felt this way about another person at some point.
Heck, somebody has probably thought the same thing about you.
You see, we all lack common sense to a certain extent, even if we don’t realize it or want to admit it.
The reason we might not be able to accept this about ourselves is because there is no single way in which a person might display their lack of common sense.
There are many.
And whilst some may not apply to you, at least one of them will.
What are those reasons?
We’ll get to that, but first let’s ask what it really means to have common sense.
What is common sense?
It’s hard to precisely define common sense, but here goes:
Common sense is the action that is deemed by the majority of people to be the most acceptable and/or most likely to result in the best outcome.
In other words, it is doing something in a particular way that is the way most people would do it.
Or, from a personal point of view, it is the action you would take in a situation or the method you would use to perform a task.
It’s important to note that it is the action being taken that is most likely to count when people think of common sense, not the outcome.
It is often possible to reach the same outcome in multiple ways, but if you see someone going about things differently to how you would do it, you might perceive a lack of common sense… even if they reach the same endpoint.
Now that we’ve got a working definition of common sense, let’s explore the reasons why someone might be perceived as lacking in it.
1. We can’t excel in all types of intelligence.
Intelligence is not a single thing that you either possess or lack. It can be broken down into different areas.
Most people probably think of someone with book smarts as being intelligent, but there are thought to be 9 types of intelligence and nobody can excel at all of them.
A stereotypical “intelligent” person with a stellar academic record and a bank of knowledge and facts in their head may lack the hand-eye coordination required to play tennis.
Similarly, someone with high interpersonal intelligence may be good at building strong bonds with others, but that doesn’t mean they can read a map.
Or the person who is highly adept at playing tennis and reading maps might be prone to saying insensitive things to others because they lack emotional reasoning and empathy.
This is probably the key reason why we perceive so many people as having no common sense: they just excel at different things to us.
But in that moment when they do something in a different way to how we would have done it, we instantly damn them for it. We simply can’t comprehend their “stupidity” as we see it.
This is in spite of the fact that we are blind to the ways in which we, too, might be seen as lacking in common sense.
2. We don’t consider all of the possible consequences of our actions.
We live our lives by the law of cause and effect, but it’s hard to always predict what cause will lead to what effect.
Some people are simply better than others at considering the vast array of possibilities and accounting for them when choosing the “best” way to do something.
This can be both the immediate consequences and those in the long term.
For example, placing a scalding hot drink down on a low coffee table whilst there are young children playing and running around is not in the least bit sensible, but some people simply don’t consider the risk of a horrible accident occurring.
It is also common sense to say that eating a diet of unhealthy takeout and fast food is highly likely to have negative consequences for your health later in life, but some people do it.
Of course, there are times when the “best” action to take is a matter of personal choice.
A young person who spends their weekends partying and drinking may be seen as reckless by others.
The immediate consequences of drunken behavior and hangovers, and the longer term consequences of not saving any of their disposable income may lead others to judge them for not having any common sense.
But the young person may see it as common sense to go out and enjoy the years when they are both best able to cope with the effects (i.e. no or less severe hangover the next day), and when they have the fewest responsibilities to others.
So it’s not always a case of being absent-minded to the possible outcomes of our actions, but of considering them differently to someone else.
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3. We’re better at giving advice than following it.
Often we know that common sense suggests we do one thing, and yet we do the opposite anyway.
We make bad choices that go against all sound reasoning and we often do so based on our emotions, our instincts, or our inability to resist temptation.
All the while, we tell other people not to do the exact thing we are doing, because we know it’s not in their best interest.
We give advice, yet we fail to take our own advice. And we fail to take the advice of others.
Take the person who tells their friend to end an unfulfilling relationship whilst staying with a partner who never shows them an ounce of love or care.
It’s often easier to know what to do than it is to do it.
That’s because we’re fallible. We all are. We are simply unable to act in what most people would consider the ideal way all of the time.
So we all lack common sense from time to time, some more often than others.
It’s not because we’re stupid or a failure, but because we’re human.
4. We’re stubborn in the face of new or contradictory information.
A person may be considered to be lacking in common sense if they continue to believe or do something when there is evidence to suggest they would be better off thinking/acting differently.
We often say that such a person is “set in their ways” and unable to change.
On the flip side, a person who is set in their ways may deem others to have no common sense because they cannot understand new ways of doing things or new ideas.
This brings us back to the important point that common sense is somewhat subjective.
Consider a grandparent who tells their child to put their baby to sleep on their front because they will sleep for longer.
When the parent tells the grandparent that this increases the risk of SIDS, the grandparent might say, “Well, I did it with you and your brothers and sisters and nothing bad ever happened to you.”
This is a form of stubbornness and denial of more recent advice from the scientific community.
It’s hard for the grandparent to hear because it might be interpreted as a criticism of how they parented, so they continue to insist that it’s fine even when they hear or read the current guidelines.
Something similar happens when we hear fake news and choose to believe it without verifying the information.
When it comes to light that the news story was actually incorrect, it doesn’t automatically make us stop believing in it.
That’s why disinformation is so quick to spread and so hard to combat. You not only have to prove the original information false, you have to fight a person’s unwillingness to admit they were wrong for believing it.
5. We’re selfish.
There are times when being selfish is a good thing, but there are many more times when it can make a person seem like they have no common sense whatsoever.
Recall our definition of common sense as the action which is acceptable to the majority of people.
It should become clear how acting selfishly is often at odds with what the majority of others find acceptable.
People on a subway carriage might turn a blind eye to the pregnant woman who just got on because they don’t want to give up their seat, even though most would consider it to be the common sense thing to do (and right thing to do).
And then there are issues such as climate change where even those who accept that the common sense thing to do is change their habits to reduce their environmental impact, find it difficult to do so because a) it’s difficult, and b) other people aren’t doing it.
Or how about the drunk driver who risks the lives of other people because it’s more convenient than having to arrange alternative transport home (or not drink)?
There’s no common sense to any of these things, and yet they all happen on a regular basis.
6. Our personalities are different.
Let’s once again remind ourselves that common sense is not something everyone will always agree upon.
What one person sees as common sense can sometimes seem unreasonable to someone else.
This can come down to two people having opposing personality types.
Take, for example, the free spirit who enjoys going on spontaneous last-minute trips with nothing but a plane ticket.
That free spirit might seem like they have no common sense in the eyes of a person who meticulously plans their vacations right down to an hour-by-hour itinerary.
Or how about the type A personality who spends their daily commute putting in extra work hours on their phone or laptop. They see it as a common sense thing to do – to maximize the time they have available to them.
Another person may see it as common sense to read a book or watch a show, knowing that they don’t get paid more for any extra work they do.
Looking at one another across the train or bus, they might shake their heads in disbelief, but neither is wrong or right. Common sense can be a matter of perspective.
So, you see, we all lack common sense in the eyes of some people, some of the time.
You may think that you are exempt from this rule, but you’re not.
So perhaps it’s time to stop judging people when they do something in a way that confuses of frustrates you and start accepting that you, too, can exhibit a real shortage of sense sometimes.