There's no such thing as "common sense"...

The phrase, “it’s common sense” is used in all sorts of situations and sounds compelling – don’t put your hand in the acid bath, it’s common sense. Don’t step into the road without looking both ways first, it’s common sense. But, weirdly, people do those things; or their equivalent. Every day, all over the world, people do things that are against “common sense”. Why is that?

Simple: there is no such thing as “common sense”. There’s hind-sight. That can tell you that you should, or should not, have done something; that something was a daft idea; a risk too far; etc. However, at the time, most of the “mad cap” steps that we take are perfectly rational and perfectly (common)sensible. And there’s the key: the actions that look mad in hind-sight looked sensible in the moment.

I’ve had the misfortune to be involved in the investigation and analysis of several industrial accidents, including one fatality. In the cold light of day, it’s easy to see what happened and it’s easy to think: why on earth did they do …. Whatever it is that was done?

My key theory on that is: fear. Fear drives people to do mad cap things. An employee, fearful of being caught acting improperly takes another improper step to try to correct the first, but one thing leads to another and disaster is often the outcome.

I was once told about an accident and, before hearing the details, I ventured an explanation – person, working alone, at night, under pressure to keep the line running, saw a problem and then, rather than do the safe thing, did something that was dangerous but that had worked before. Sadly, this time, it did not work and the person was fatally injured. I was right and the key part in the explanation is “under pressure” – there was a fear that stopping the process, clearing the problem and moving on was going to lead to disciplinary action. So, in that person’s “common sense”, the drive for safe action was overcome by the drive for “don’t get fired action”.

So, rather than dismiss people’s actions as “lack of common sense”, ask what were they fearful of? What made then act dangerously?

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