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Everything is Obvious: Once You Know the Answer

3.82  ·  Rating details ·  4,389 ratings  ·  286 reviews
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 a
Hardcover, 352 pages
Published March 29th 2011 by Crown Business
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Average rating 3.82  · 
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Dec 22, 2013 rated it really liked it
A welcome antidote to Malcolm Gladwell's lazy but satisfying answers. But, it ends abrup ...more
Al Bità
Nov 03, 2011 rated it it was ok  ·  review of another edition
This book starts off reasonably well: the first half is devoted to giving us many examples of the failure or inadequacy of 'common sense' to explain or predict the world we live in. The most interesting underlying concept, for me, is that in this world, ALL knowledge is generated and developed for the purposes of prediction: we collect data, develop hypotheses to back up certain patterns we perceive or deduce from that data, and then use these patterns (usually in the form of mathematical formul ...more
May 07, 2011 rated it really liked it
Reasons why I liked this book (on account of my confirmation bias):

1. Watts thinks Malcolm Gladwell is an idiot
2. His criticism of Nassim Taleb's "Black Swan" events
3. Great summaries of various behavioral economics/policy/psychology/sociological experiments
4. Further proof that Nozick was wrong and Rawls/Sandel are right (obviously)
Aaron Arnold
This is frequently described as a book on common sense, which it is, but more importantly it's an investigation on human cognitive limits more generally and also a call to radically restructure the discipline of sociology in light of modern advances in technology. Sociology often gets made fun of in the hierarchies of academic disciplines, but Watts argues that there are reasons why sociology seems so vague and unscientific: not only are sociological problems very complicated in ways that physic ...more
❀Aimee❀ Just one more page...
The book started out with a lot of stories and fascinating new ideas. While we are wired to try to predict outcomes, we really can't do as well as we think. If you're skeptical, you'll become a believer pretty quickly while reading.

What we think is "obvious" is really only that way after the fact. He illustrates this fact by pretending to give some outcome to a situation where the reader can easily assign reasons why the outcome happened. Then he said the opposite outcome was really true, and a
Mar 29, 2012 rated it really liked it
*Well, that's just obvious!*

It's just common sense, right? Think again!

This book explores the three main types of common sense errors: systemically flawed mental models of individual behavior, even more flawed models of collective behaviors, and misrepresentations of past events which result in us learning less from history than we think we do. The book does a powerful job in exposing the reality that common sense convinces us that we know more than we really do. (Warning: this truth may be mor
Feb 12, 2013 rated it really liked it
Deep. A bit philosophical. Takes on 'common sense' explanations of social phenomenon like influencers and tipping points. Also describes some of his own very cool research (though you gotta go elsewhere for more details of it).

A couple of my favorite nuggets:

When a forest fire breaks out, we never wonder what made that spark so unique. We only wonder how much dry tinder was lying around the forest and how long the drought had been. But when a video goes viral or a brand takes off, we ONLY wonder
Aug 20, 2011 rated it really liked it
Whenever I hear (or read) an otherwise intelligent person deriding a social psych experiment-- e.g., "I can't believe someone had to *research* whether the media causes poor body image in teenage girls! Everybody *knows* it does!"--I weep for humanity. The tools of social science are imprecise, and what "everybody knows" is often wrong, or not proven by studies, or rendered inconclusive by the data. That's why we do studies, that's why we keep the research and the conversation going when studies ...more
Feb 17, 2017 rated it liked it  ·  review of another edition
Ack. I'm convinced that commonsense reasoning fails us. I'm convinced that policy makers should hire social scientists who actually use rigorous methodology instead of intuition and uncontrolled experiments. But I was convinced of that already.... I thought this was actually going to give us some answers. And I didn't find any that actually helped me understand anything... but I've been reading a lot of modern psychology books already....

Bonus point for the snaps on Gladwell. Subtractive points
Jul 22, 2011 rated it liked it
If you are only a reader of fiction, you probably will not like this book. If however you have some interest in the psychology of human behavior, this may appeal to you. It is well suited for those of us who have some background training and or experience in clinical trials, study groups, and statistics. The text is a bit dry, but not so much so that it is difficult to read. The author does a reasonably good job in explaining how and why people decide to do what they do and form the opinions the ...more
Jurgen Appelo
Feb 03, 2016 rated it really liked it
Great message. Most of our simplistic conclusions are wrong.
Mar 25, 2015 rated it it was amazing
Consider the last national election, your employer's last annual report, or your favorite sports team's last away-game victory. What made the particular outcome happen? Looking backward, conclusions seem foregone; we construct retrospective explanations that justify how what happened had to happen, because, well, it did. But Duncan J. Wells explains that what seems inevitable once it's already happened, is actually deeply contingent and controversial. Exactly why is both bizarre and revealing.

Jul 05, 2017 rated it really liked it
For me, this book is sweet, delicious Nihilism. No, that's the wrong word. It's like Nihilism for knowledge, which I don't think is a word.

Let me back up - I negative learned from this book. I unlearned many explanations for the world I thought I knew, and changed how I perceive and understand my interactions with people around me. Watts very strongly argues that it's very challenging to understand people or predict the future, so humans just kind of guess and mostly guess wrong.

Science then tr
Malin Friess
Jan 10, 2013 rated it it was ok
Duncan Watts argues that our common sense is not as good as we think it should be. When we trust our common sense we often make bad predictions.

His support:

We are duped into believing the Mona Lisa is such an extraordinary painting or Shakespeare such amazing writing. The Mona Lisa is small and average work for Da Vinci. We study these works as masterpieces and eventually it becomes self fullfilling.

Our common sense is a poor predictor as it should have been obvious that Facebook and Yahoo and
Nov 29, 2011 rated it liked it
This book has a brilliant first half where it shows that common sense is a questionable appeal, a dubious guide to action, and a disastrous foundation to policy, while the second half has some key advice but fails to take the truly courageous step, unlike Kahneman, of telling us how to practically distrust ourselves. What this volume serves up instead, the measure of continually analyzing the communication patterns of the internet will literally serve as the telescope that will lead to the remak ...more
Ben Iverson
Jul 01, 2019 rated it it was amazing
Shelves: 5-stars
This is such an excellent book. It is so underrated in the "popular social science" genre, such as Freakonomics or Nudge. The main thesis is that "common sense" is really good at coming up with stories for why the world is the way it is, but terrible at determining which stories are actually true. Watts gives example after example of this. One main point is that we need rigorous academic research in economics and other social sciences in order to understand the world, and not just the story-tell ...more
John Stepper
Aug 31, 2018 rated it really liked it
The book can feel mildly unsatisfying as you wade through the difficulties and issues with our common sense and many of our methods and systems for making decisions, and yet left without much in the way of alternatives. This isn’t a shortcoming of the author or the book as much as one of sociology and human beings in general.

For sure, the author made me think. And the excellent notes and bibliography have already led me to new trails to explore and research.
Jun 12, 2019 rated it really liked it
This didn't seem interesting, but I found myself quoting it so I imagine it is important.
One thing I got out of this was that common sense is shaped by culture
Dec 08, 2019 rated it really liked it
Shelves: non-fiction, 2019
The first part of this book is an extensive discussion of the types of predictive reasoning errors the human brain makes, how that causes us to think that we know more than we actually do and how this type of reasoning leads to a tendency to discount social sciences as "real science". The second part then proposes the use of real-time technology for building predictive models. While I think the second part over-reaches a bit, in general a good, and thought-provoking analysis of how common sense ...more
Nov 04, 2019 rated it really liked it
Loved reading this. Scathing. ooph. yeah.

I will say he uses the same examples as a lot of popular books which makes me kinda nuts. can nobody do their own research anymore?!

basically: if you can 'explain' with common sense something in either direction then THERE'S NO COMMON SENSE! 'Common sense' may help us tell stories but it doesn't help us predict the future.

bad: his writing style is very hit you over the head. also he denigrates representative agents then the last three chapters he uses the
Vijayakumar Belur
Sep 22, 2019 rated it really liked it
Yes. It looks obvious but it is not. Analysing the messy social science shows many insights
Leticia Supple
Jul 28, 2016 rated it liked it
Like many works written by academics, Everything is Obvious: Once you know the answer, starts out promising but ends up losing its way. The edition that I "read" was the audio edition, which was narrated (happily) by the author himself. Just as well he was a reasonably competent reader, though somewhat stilted.

Everything is Obvious: Once you know the answer is a challenge to the notion that common sense is good sense. It is a presentation of the author's significant researches into this topic. A
Dec 22, 2011 rated it really liked it
Shelves: read-psychology
A pretty damn cool book that suffers from too many ideas, many of which repeatedly skittered away through my sieve-like brainpan. This caused me to read and re-read the helpful appendix at the end, which summarized the book chapter-by-chapter.

The author of this book can't understand why everybody is always hyperventilating about the Mona Lisa. Although that wasn't my particular bugaboo, I certainly can understand his vexation. For my part, I've always suspected that most people can't really tel
Aug 12, 2011 rated it really liked it
This book was great at first. I read his original book "Six Degrees" and was enjoying this one almost as much. The second half of the book completely lost focus, though, as he jumped around between unrelated points and kept complaining that social scientists aren't given enough credit.

The concepts shared in the book about how outcomes of events seem so certain after the fact, how "common sense" can be completely wrong, and how we often learn the wrong lessons from history were very interesting.
Richard Smith
Mar 06, 2013 rated it liked it
George Davey-Smith recommended that I read this book because he was fascinated by its account of how it is "arbitrary" that certain things--the Mona Lisa, Facebook, the Harry Potter books--become hugely famous and popular. It is not because of their intrinsic qualities (although they must have some merit) but because of other complicated processes that I will try to explain in a blog (primarily to try and get it into my head).

This book is an example of not quite making it. The book could have be
Roger Burk
Jan 02, 2016 rated it really liked it  ·  review of another edition
Plausible, common-sense explanations we think up to explain things can often be wrong. On-line field experiments show that the "six degrees of separation" is pretty much true, but the links do not go through a small number of highly-connected people after all. In complex social systems, the response to inputs can be highly nonlinear, and there's no way to predict them. There is a good deal of randomness in what ideas become popular. Social change comes from a critical mass of easily influenced p ...more
Dec 14, 2012 rated it it was amazing
One of the books that I still think about daily.

Probably best to read in a class or some group at least because the content is pretty dense and can be confusing (it definitely got better the second time I read it). But it has so many insights on how we think and how organizations (dis)function, and offers strategies to try to go beyond our usual and limited/often misguided ways of making predictions.

An aspect of the book that I found especially refreshing was his thoughts on the complexity and i
Arun Jawarlal
Sep 13, 2015 rated it liked it
It was a promising read until it started becoming a compendium of statistical definitions with examples. It was interesting at times when the examples were fascinating - Namely the promised circular reasoning of Mona Lisa's universal appeal or maybe the Butch Cassidy and Sundance Kid bit to prove that When predicting an outcome, the present moment cannot be considered vital or the psychology of mobs. The book starts getting predictable, which is an irony.
It is part II which made me sit up.
Mar 23, 2016 rated it it was amazing
After I graduated from business school I went to work on Wall Street and was paid very well. I wanted to see for myself if it is true that "Money can't buy happiness." If you like to test conventional wisdom and take nothing for granted then this book is for you.

That old saw, like common sense, implies a certain model of life. This book advocates that we need to understand our models, their underlying assumptions, their uses and missuses, their limitations, their derivations and implications. F
Sep 27, 2011 rated it really liked it  ·  review of another edition
the book can be broadly separated into 2 parts

(a) how common sense fails us (i) personal level - how we usually think only in term of incentive etc vs circumstantial explanation as to why someone does something (e.g. default setting) (ii) societal level - how the problem at the personal level gets compounded into a bigger problem - we tend to simplify explanations like taking/understanding society as a whole (e.g. explaining market as 1 person, the economy as 1 person) etc (iii) history - and ho
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Duncan Watts is a principal researcher at Microsoft Research and a founding member of the MSR-NYC lab. From 2000-2007, he was a professor of Sociology at Columbia University, and then, prior to joining Microsoft, a principal research scientist at Yahoo! Research, where he directed the Human Social Dynamics group . He has also served on the external faculty of the Santa Fe Institute and is currentl ...more

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142 likes · 33 comments
“What appear to us to be causal explanations are in fact just stories—descriptions of what happened that tell us little, if anything, about the mechanisms at work.” 5 likes
“common sense is wonderful at making sense of the world, but not necessarily at understanding it.” 3 likes
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