Common Sense – Learned or Inherited ?

Ok, I could use a little help here. My boyfriend and I had a rather, for lack of a better term, heated discussion last night regarding common sense. He feels that it’s a trait that either you have, or you don’t and it can’t be learned. I say it’s something that is learned and not an inherent trait in people. I gave him an example… I asked him who he felt would last longer if they were to become ship wrecked on a deserted island and had to rely on common sense to survive. A person who, for example, was raised on a farm and was capable of forging for food or a wealthy socialite, raised in a high rise with maids and servants at their beck and call. Needless to say, he felt that it would depend on the person and the amount of common sense they had before they became ship wrecked. Now, I agree with that, but I was still putting my money on the farmer. But, then I got to thinking on my way to work this morning that my answer may be wrong. The farmer has learned “skills” that will enable him to survive not so much, common sense. But I still believe that someone who has had to work for things in there life and therefore have been forced to use more common sense would stand a better chance of surviving.

Now, I have to mention… he has a Masters in Statistics and Masters in Quality Management so he’s a graph and numbers kind of guy. He’s looking for numbers/statistics to back this up. I told him I wasn’t sure if I could produce that for him but maybe the Teeming Millions could help me get a better feel for who may be right and who may be wrong with their responses. Or, if we are both right in our arguments. Then, as he looked at me with that “deer caught in the headlight” stare, I had to explain who the Teeming Millions were. After explaining that, he’s dying to hear the responses as I am too.

This strikes me as an inherently unanswerable question. Fun, but inherently unanswerable.

First, how does one objectively define common sense? Since we don’t have any really good objective definitions of intelligence, it strikes me as a non-starter. One of those things that becomes a quagmire for lack of objective standards at the moment.

Second, taking note of the example of intelligence, its probably a false start to put things in terms of either environment or inheritance – by which I’m understanding genetic. Assuming that common sense is some property which ressembles what is commonly called intelligence – perhaps even a type of intelligence-- its likely to be structured similarly.

That is, genetic inheritance places a sort of very gross set of parameters upon which environment builds. And note that environment means right from conception through to childhood. Exposure to certain chemicals and compounds or lack thereof, poor cognitive environment etc. can all have vast effects. Genetic expression of traits is not a mechanical process (i.e. fixed once you’re concieved) but dynamic.

I would advise against a raft of statistics based on uncontrolled observation though. Garbage in, garbage out.

Perhaps what I’ve really said is that the idea that you either got it or you don’t is wrong for the most part, but neither is it likely that one will be able to completely ascribe this to environment. But at this point any real solid answer really is beyond us until we have much more information on brain function and so forth.

If you are talking about common sense reasoning…

You may be very interested in this website:
Which involves using common sense problem solving (which I think you are talking about)
and also:

These websites are about commonsense reasoning, which may shed more light on your argument.

Have fun!

I would think that “common sense” is something a person can get better at–but I certainly don’t have any statistics to back this up. Could someone provide at least anecdotal evidence?
Maybe common sense, instead of being something you’re born with or something you learn entirely, is a habit you get into, or a muscle that grows with exercise?

i would bet on learning in the form of how the parents trained the child from his/her earliest days. this is LEARNED but is so deeply ingrained it is like part of the personality. the intellectual common sense can work too but it depends on the selfdiscipline of the person.

George Bernard Shaw did a play:


in which some rich brits with their servants were shipwrecked on a island. one of the servants became ruler of the group.

Dal Timgar

Collounsberry - For sake of this argument, we are defining common sense as a persons ability to think outside the box and act quick on ones feet. As far as our argument was concerned, we both had the same perception of “what” common sense is… we just didn’t agree on how one obtains it.
Zette - Thanks for the links. That should help out a lot. I don’t know that I’m trying to prove him wrong or prove myself right. The more I think about this whole situation, the more I believe that both answer may be right.

Hmm, well by any definition the problem remains the same, adequately defining what common sense is in terms of brain function and then relating that to the underlying biology. Insofar as that’s the question, the answer still remains the same as above, I think.

I’m with Collounsbury (to the extent that he is saying what I think he is). Common sense is nothing more that a way of thinking. People’s way of thinking has both genetic and environmental influences. So you and your boyfriend are both wrong.

I also agree that it would be difficult if not impossible to test for this.

It could be both, if we use the word sensus communis to mean “community sense” or “sense of the common” that humanist philosophers assumed by it. In this regard, common sense could be seen as traditional (quasi-inherited but learned) both actively and passively (conditions that enable it), but yet remain a talent due to the ability to master it. It once solidly implied the making of “moral” judgments, right and wrong, etc., and schools of thought either emphasized feeling or thinking about such judgments. However, if we are talking pragmatical problem solving, this is not foreign to common sense, and such problem solving is also paradoxically limited by theoretical traditions and learning. I don’t think it can be tested, however, because it implies free conditions to express itself. To me it goes back to the deeper meanings of philosophy itself: Love of wisdom, which is both passion and reason, or passion for reason (not one over the other). One aspect is creative, the other concentrated in learning. I would accept that commmon sense defies definition, for that is the realm of common sense, which requires common sense to define it, hence is more poetic than logical. Whatever.

Think outside the box? That seems to me to be the antithesis of common sense.

Errrr. I hope I was saying what I seem to have been saying if I actually understood my own writing there… Hmmm, must edit posts more.

Thanks for the responses. I shared your answer with the boyfriend and his response is as follows and he welcomes any feedback you have.

While common sense cannot be objectively and/or scientifically measured, it can be subjectively observed (the lack of common sense can certainly be observed around us every day). As for life experience, perhaps the most significant related indicator is age. Therefore, I will use age and observed common sense (or the lack thereof) as an alternative means of supporting my theory (that common sense is an inherent quality, perhaps bolstered somewhat by life experience, but primarily determined from within).

Before going any further, lets operationally define the term “common sense”. Webster defines “common” as having to do with, belonging to, or used by an entire community or public; and “sense” as the ability which allows a person to be aware of things around him (as in the five senses), an ethical or moral attitude, the meaning of a word. Joining the two words seems to create a somewhat different meaning which may or may not be consistent among all minds. Therefore, the following questions will attempt to put into perspective what I believe to be common sense.

Think for a moment about your daily interactions with people… your direct observations in your work life, your home life, on the street, etc…
·How often do you see brilliance around you? Don’t confuse this with common sense, this is intelligence… set these observations aside.
·How often do you see wisdom around you? Don’t confuse this with common sense, this is knowledge… set these observations aside.
·How often do you see ignorance around you? Don’t confuse this with common sense (or a lack thereof), this is simply a lack of exposure/understanding of a topic… set these observations aside.
·How many times do you see insanity around you? Don’t confuse this with common sense, this could be a variety of mental/psychological conditions… set these observations aside.
·Now… how many times do you see otherwise “normal” (a dangerous word itself) people who just don’t seem to be aware of their surroundings? Who don’t seem to be able to integrate two seemingly simple thoughts? Who seem unable to automatically process what most would call “common” thoughts? (I could go on and on… how do you define common sense or the lack thereof?)

Now that you have in mind several (hopefully) observations, many of which you likely consider to be a lack of common sense (we generally only tend to notice/remember situations where a lack of common sense is observed), think about the age of the individuals involved. If you have known them for years, has their observed level of common sense increased significantly over the years? Do you envision their level of common sense increasing over the next 10 to 20 years? If your observations include several people, do the older ones seem to have more common sense than the younger ones? (This comparison of relative common sense will be skewed to the extent that you regularly interact with people of different age groups [i.e. your sample of the overall population].)

I submit that some people, regardless of age or life experience, simply have/exercise a limited level of common sense. I further submit that it is our own life experience (e.g. our limited observations of common sense, or the lack thereof; our limited exposure to people of broad age range) that may determine how we answer this question.

I’m having trouble agreeing with the given definitions of the term. To me it seems that what people refer to as “common sense” are really just shared understandings or traditions. “You won’t catch anything wading downstream. Use your common sense.” That may be obvious to a fisherman but a neophyte has to learn it. I don’t see that it has anything to do with intelligence ( other than memory ) but rather has to do with common experiences. I definately wouldn’t equate it with adaptability.
As I see it, common sense would be of no help in an unknown environment.

Just my 2sense

In which case we’re talking about subjective judgements. Ergo we can not achieve a scientific answer.

I would need to understand what is meant by inherent quality to comment further. “Inherent” could mean a lot of things.

My tuppence:

What most people think of as common sense is really just a talent for generalizing. First generalizing between different problem sets, then generalizing between possible solution sets.

So my answer to the original question is that common sense is indeed learned. However it is probably not learned in a direct way. It’s learned indirectly though observation.

I do not believe that there is any genetic propensity for common sense, rather I think kids of parents with common sense ‘inherit’ their own common sense via observation.