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? How much can CEO’s impact the performance of their companies? And does higher pay incentivize people to work hard?
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 - explanation that seem obvious once we know the answer - are less useful than they seem.
Drawing on the latest scientific research, along with a wealth of historical and contemporary examples, Watts shows how common sense reasoning and history conspire to mislead us into believing 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.
It seems obvious, for example, that people respond to incentives; yet policy makers and managers alike frequently fail to anticipate how people will respond to the incentives they create. Social trends often seem to have been driven by certain influential people; yet marketers have been unable to identify these “influencers” in advance. And although successful products or companies always seem in retrospect to have succeeded because of their unique qualities, predicting the qualities of the next hit product or hot company is notoriously difficult, even for experienced professionals.
Only by understanding how and when common sense fails, Watts argues, can we improve how we plan for the future, as well as understand the present - an argument that has important implications in politics, business, and marketing, as well as in science and everyday life.
©2011 Duncan J. Watts (P)2011 Random House Audio
"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. And while it is not always pleasurable to realize the many ways in which we are wrong, it is useful to figure out the cases where our intuitions fail us." (Dan Ariely, James B. Duke Professor of Behavioral Economics at Duke University, and New York Times best-selling author of Predictably Irrational)
“A deep and insightful book that is a joy to read. There are new ideas on every page, and none of them is obvious!” (Daniel Gilbert, Professor of Psychology at Harvard University and author of Stumbling on Happiness)
"A brilliant account of why, for every hard question, there’s a common sense answer that’s simple, seductive, and spectacularly wrong. If you are suspicious of pop sociology, rogue economics, and didactic history - or, more importantly, if you aren’t! - Everything is Obvious is necessary reading. It will literally change the way you think." (Eric Klinenberg, Professor of Sociology. New York University)
Duncan Watts is a physics professor turned sociology professor. I was intrigued by the idea of someone who could bring 'hard science' approaches to sociology. You might want to read the last chapter first as he summarizes the differences between sociological and hard science research. However, this is done in a most positive way - he points out that sociologic studies are important and that there are means and methods that can be used and developed to achieve better understanding into human behavior.
His insights are very thought provoking. He points out that many aspects of sociological studies that are generally not considered. For instance, we have a way of explaining history after we already know the outcome. Was the surge in Iraq really responsible for turning around that conflict or was it some combination of other factors such as rebuidling infrastructure, training new police, training new Iraqi military, more experienced government etc. There's really no way to tell because we can't run an 'experiment' to see what would happen if there was no surge...
Sociologist often fall upon what they term common sense explanations....but these explanations only work well when you already know the answer.
This is a great addition to the series Outliers and Predictably Irrational. I look forward to the contributions of his approach into important social issues.
I would have given it 5 stars, but I found it unfortunate that he often did not credit some of the work he cited. I understand that this is not a scientific paper but some of the more important and lengthy examples he cites should have been credited.
mostly nonfiction listener
It's about time a sociologist wrote an amazing and accessible book for a non-specialist audience. Everything Is Obvious: *Once You Know the Answer by Duncan J. Watts is that amazing book.
For too long, the economists, psychologists, historians and evolutionary psychologists have owned the popular non-fiction category. No longer. Sociology is back!
And what a sociologist. Check out the Wikipedia entry on the author:
"Duncan J. Watts (born 1971) is an Australian researcher and a principal research scientist at Yahoo! Research, where he directs the Human Social Dynamics group. He is also an external faculty member of the Santa Fe Institute and a former professor of sociology at Columbia University, where he headed the Collective Dynamics Group."
Or his list of publications from his Yahoo Research page - (which brings up 1,734 results).
The dude is barely 40.
Now I'm biased to be psyched about a great popular non-fiction book written by a sociologist, as I am a (somewhat lapsed) member of this tribe. For a while now, it seems as if the evolutionary psychologists, the biologists, the behavioral economists, and economic historians have been debating, discussing and writing about the most interesting ideas, theories and trends.
Sure, we have Sudhir Venkatesh (Gang Leader for a Day: A Rogue Sociologist Takes to the Streets) but nobody like Dan Ariely, Richard Florida, Steven Levitt, Tyler Cowen, Simon Schama, Niall Ferguson, Leonard Mlodinow, Sam Gosling, Steven Pinker, Ian Ayres, or Daniel Gilbert. (Wow…all males in this list - taken from my Audible list of academics who have written popular books that I really liked. Not sure if I like what this says about my own lack of diversity in what I read).
The big idea underpinning "Everything is Obvious" is that the massive amounts of data created by Web 2.0 search, networking and communications platforms such as Twitter, Facebook, Facebook and Yahoo gives social scientists the tools to test the relationship between individual and group preferences, actions and beliefs. According to Watts, sociology is due for a renaissance, as the Web can be utilized as a tool to run social experiments that were previously not possible with traditional survey techniques.
Watts has run a number of these experiments, which have the common theme of calling into question commonly held beliefs about the origins and catalysts for a range of trends and outcomes. For instance, Watts takes on Malcolm Gladwell's conclusions in The Tipping Point that a small group of "influentials" can start and drive consumer trends.
Every Sociology 101 course (a class I've taught more times than I care to remember) should assign "Everything is Obvious". Watts provides a nice synthesis of the main tenets of sociology (from Durkheim to Parsons), moving fluently between the worlds of sociological theory, technology, and popular culture. We might find that the number of sociology majors will increase if we let this book lose in our courses.
What other companies have a resident sociologist? My respect for Yahoo has dramatically increased.
I had not heard of Duncan Watts when I first listened to this book... but since I've noticed he's been sited in several other books I've read recently. If this book doesn't change the way you view the world you are a more evolved person than I. Between reading this book, and 'How to Measure Anything' this year, I feel like my mind has been turned upside down.
Read Duncan Watts, read Douglas Hubbard, then go out and change the world!
"Everything is Obvious" dives into how we interpret the world, make decisions, and how we are unknowingly influenced. Watts makes us reexamine simple decision making scenarios, and then with references to Gladwell's "The Tipping Point," add's additional layers of social or group of complexity. The controllable variables set out in lab tests often become irrelevant when we try to sell into our markets containing millions of other influences. Although some questions may be reproduced many times (batting hit averages for example), others simply cannot (such as invading a country). The information collected from our social networks adds new possibilities for understanding our target market which has been previously unavailable. A thought provoking & recommended read.
Very few times in my life I have read books that make you rethink or reconsider the moral schemes, social, attitude at work and how to address problems and challenges.
Just finished reading one of those books. Until today I was one who thought that common sense is the least common of the senses. After reading now I am convinced that decisions based on common sense are wrong by default.
Few books have immediate impacts that change the way a student of the world looks upon it, however, this is one of those few treasures. In college, Freakonomics and its way of thinking, was a direct influence in how I wrote my senior thesis. However, Everything is Obvious was truly the book I was waiting for.
After college, I listened to The Tipping Point because of its hype, and I always seemed to think something was missing; perhaps something rubbed me the wrong way about the narrative. Duncan Watts illustrates precisely what Malcolm Gladwell’s book was missing and describes the key points behind his faux conclusions.
Watts dives into the social side of reasoning and shows that life is far more inconclusive than economists or physicists would like to think they are. He goes through some of his studies that churn the mind the same way Freakonomics does. It is a definite read and a great work of insight to both business students and professionals who hate when people say “x business came to a ‘tipping point’ and became successful.”
A quite good course on decision making with a bunch of stats material. I'd recommend this book.
Business Physicist and Astronomer
There are a few interesting nuggets to ponder but don't expect the next "Tipping Point" although he often quotes Gladwell.
The narration would have been far better if read by Humphrey Bower.
The central point, with which I agree, is that looking at incidents in reverse doesn't always lead to cause. Fair enough. But then Watts takes us on a crazy trip of irrational thinking.
For example, people drive drunk every day without killing anyone, so, is drunk driving the cause of so many fatalities? Or is it .....fate? He gives a tragic example of a drunk killing an entire family. But had they lingered at their starting point a moment longer, the drunk would have sped through the red light ahead of them rather than in to them. Is this really worth discussing? Since people drive drunk without killing people every time, we are to suspend drunk driving as a cause for fatalities?
I think there's an attempt to muddy thinking. Sort of the old lawyer trick of making you doubt your own testimony.
Skip this one.
It's a pity that although it has some interesting thoughts, even though some are rehashed from others, there is always a hidden job interview for a central planner in books like this:"Hire me, I have found an argument to put a sauce of scientific respectability over your grab of raw power over people."
After heralding the power of accumulated wisdom of freely trading individuals, he names cap and trade and all kind of government coerced programs of taxation as examples of free markets. He also blames the financial crisis on the foolishness of crowds, ignoring that a small elite is setting interest rates, inflating money supply and directing the masses with laws as central planners, being lavishly campaign donated by Freddy and Fanny just before these mortgage giants needed a bailout.
In the same line he ponders about how the hell to devise a reward scheme that is fair in the banking world, with all kinds of regulations, while ignoring the most obvious one:let them fail and don't throw in the bailout slaves at the point of a gun. But getting rid of power is not an argument that falls good in a job applications with the coercive elite, so more power to patch the problems of previous power is the rule.
As a fan of Freakonomics, Predictably Irrational and Thinking Fast and Slow (among many others of the cognitive ilk) at first I thought this title might not have much new information for me. Indeed, most of the topics covered are familiar ground for me. Still, the social tack taken here really cements how relying solely on common sense can get you into trouble. Clear, articulate yet never dull. Great stuff.
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