Common-sense is Non-sense

Common Sense is Non-Sense

The trouble with common sense is that it is never common and rarely sensible                                           (Confucius)

I recently appeared in the Victorian County Court as an expert witness in a civil case. I was disappointed – even saddened – that both the barrister for the plaintiff – and even the judge – kept referring to “common sense”. I’m not sure I won too many favours by declining to respond to questions such as “Surely it is common sense to …?” or “Wouldn’t it have been sensible to …?” When I asked ‘His Honour’ to explain his understanding of the term ‘common sense’, he then used terms such as ‘what a reasonable person would do’. Although that might satisfy the lawyers, does that really explain anything?


Reliance on something called commonsense has plagued the work safety profession for decades. Despite much work from OHS professionals debunking the use of such vague terms in the health and safety field, unfortunately it is still prevalent. And in courts of all places! Even the safety regulators like Safe Work Australia, WorkSafe Victoria and the US Occupational Safety & Health Administration use such terms!!

So let’s examine some of the difficulties associated with these terms.

A dictionary definition of common sense is something like “Sound judgement not based on specialized knowledge; native good judgment.” But how can one make sound judgement about health and safety risks without specialised knowledge of the work, the technology and the work place.

If common sense is the accumulation of knowledge over time and is learned in the same way as other knowledge, it follows that everyone has the ability to learn common sense. But some will acquire this skill more readily than others. It also stands to reason that younger persons would have less common sense than older persons. And if one acquires common sense by ‘trial and error learning’ (another furphy – but I’ll talk about that term elsewhere) – what are the consequences of the errors in the learning process?

Terms such as ‘common sense’, being ‘sensible’ and even ‘be careful’ tend to simplify the work needed to make something safe and can lead to dumbing down of the decision-making process by some.

My level of common sense tells me not to put a chemical into a container without labelling it. But then I’m a trained industrial chemist. If common sense were common, there would be no accidental poisonings.

If safety was just a matter of common sense, you would not be reading this article – and I would be out of a job.

Particularly in light of new Work Health and Safety legislation, courts should quickly dispel the nonsense of ‘common sense’. Indeed, the notion of ‘common sense’ absolves people of responsibility to ‘ensure a safe workplace’ and is in direct contradiction to the Work Health and Safety Act.

If common sense were a reality then there would be no need for inductions or training, people would somehow just know what to do. The evidence shows that even after extensive inductions and training, people still don’t know what to do. No less an authority than Professor Andrew Hopkins (ANU) holds that if safety is ‘common sense’ then we need no trainers, training programs, safety officers, inductions or safety legislation. The idea of ‘common sense’ simply means ‘fly by the seat of your pants’, or ‘work it out by yourself’.

Is use of the term ‘common sense’ code for implying that if you agree with me then you obviously have common sense, and if you don’t then you’re an idiot! (Please do not interpret this to mean that if you disagree with my theory then I consider you an idiot.)

It is the idea that ‘common sense’ exists or can be defined that is a non-sense.

The sooner we dispose of such illogical and unsafe language the better. The safety community needs to understand that language has a ‘priming effect’ on ideas and behaviour. This is why supervisors and safety people should avoid language such as ‘common sense’, ‘can do’, ‘get the job done’, ‘whatever it takes’, ‘she’ll be right mate’ and other generalistic and meaningless language that misleads and provides no definition around expectations or behaviour.

Even in the 2011 book by Paul Difford entitled ”Redressing the Balance – A Common sense Approach to Causation”, nowhere in the volume is the concept of common sense defined. This is how the notion of common sense works, it only has special meaning for ‘me’ but there is no common assumed agreement between ‘us’. When we speak of ‘common sense’ we simply mean ‘my sense’ of the context or situation.

The language of ‘common sense’ is always used to blame others for a form of thinking that is not common. For example, ‘If they had only used their common sense, they wouldn’t have been hurt’ or ‘common sense would tell you not to do that’. We hear the constant declaration that common sense is required in a particular place or context and this simply demonstrates that it doesn’t exist.

What’s the Alternative? Perhaps try “Sensemaking”

The reality is that people ‘sensemake’ differently depending on a host of formative reasons. Prof. Karl Weick was first to articulate the idea of ‘organisational sensemaking’ [see and[1][1].pdf ]

Weick discusses the essential tools and filters we use to make sense of information, these are:

Self Esteem: Your own confidence in yourself, personal identity and what you think of yourself in relation to others will affect the way you interpret information.

History: Your past story, from where you were born and lived to what got you to where you are. All things in your personal history have some influence in what you know and how you interpret the present.

Social Context: Where you are in relation to others, what is happening around you, the nature of those around you and the way they relate to the same information all influence the way you interpret information.

Confirming Evidence: We act something into belief, even creating a bias in our minds so that when something happens it confirms the belief. For example, if we rev up our own car in response to the hot car full of young men mentioned earlier, we enact a new scenario which may confirm or disconfirm what we believe. If we hold our finger up or tactically ignore their behaviour, each act brings into being a new act. Something new changes the sense of what is happening.

Cues and Indicators: What we see, hear and feel doesn’t necessarily carry information with it. We recognise indicators and cues which give us information similar to things we have experienced before. We recognise the importance of the revving motor and know it means power, provocation and aggression. All information is subjective and interpreted.

Believability: Isn’t it peculiar that when something unexpected happens we express surprise, amazement and disbelief? Our capacity to imagine is directly linked to not only what we believe but also to what we are willing to believe. Our ability to imagine extends or limits our ability to make sense of things. Believability is an important part of prediction, and combines with past experience and cues to help us imagine what is possible. If we don’t think something is possible, we don’t plan for it and certainly can’t imagine the risks associated with it. We now know a tsunami can kill 250,000 people, we now know in Australia that a bushfire can kill 250 people and we now know that an earthquake and tsunami can put a country into nuclear crisis. Such evidence changes the way we interpret new information.

Flow: The final tool we use to make sense of things is flow. The pace and speed of events affects the way we interpret them. Much of what we sense goes quickly to our subconscious and triggers a rapid intuitive response. Our intuition or gut feeling bypasses the need to process things step by step in a slow logical pattern. Our intuition gives us the ‘flight or fight’ response we need in a crisis.

These are the factors we bring to bear in how we ‘make sense’ of things, including safety. It is simply not good enough to rely on some mythical idea of a common point of shared knowledge to keep people safe. It is not enough to through together a Powerpoint presentation saturated with text as if this somehow helps people become inducted into hazard and risk identification on site. How can people ‘make sense’ of so much information when their mind is ‘flooded’ by such an ‘arse covering’ exercise. There is no ‘common sense’ but organisational sensemaking can be created. This requires a new approach to inductions and training that has a focus on learning, education and creating safety through communication and consultation about risk.