Making Sense of Common Sense

How understanding the taken-for-granted can enrich behavioral science

Posted Aug 27, 2015

The extensive report Mind, Society and Behavior, recently published by the World Bank, includes a wealth of information for behavioral science experts, practitioners and policy makers.

The paper’s conceptual framework is divided into three sections: ‘Thinking automatically’, ‘Thinking socially’ and ‘Thinking with mental models’.

The concept of ‘thinking automatically’ has been popularized by Daniel Kahneman’s application of a dual system model to behavioral economics in the book Thinking, Fast and Slow. Whether it’s about the effects of framing, anchoring or sunk costs, the distinction between automatic System 1 versus reflective System 2 thinking is a useful model to explain biases that sometimes result from our thought processes. ‘Thinking socially’ captures the work of social and behavioral scientists who are interested in the way our behavior is influenced by other people. We are not as selfish as we might think and don’t make decisions in isolation.

I particularly appreciate the World Bank report’s inclusion of ‘thinking with mental models’. The concept of mental models is not very prevalent in today’s behavioral science, which is increasingly dominated by theories from (the heavily quantitative) behavioral economics. Mental models are about the cultural and symbolic stuff of thought that is used in sense-making. As the report puts it, “mental models help people make sense of the world—to interpret their environment and understand themselves. Mental models include categories, concepts, identities, prototypes, stereotypes, causal narratives, and worldviews.”

The concept of mental models can complement and enrich behavioral science insights by providing a symbolic perspective. While 'thinking automatically' is often about the adaptive and efficient use of information (of which we sometimes have too much), sense-making processes show how we deal with conflicting, ambiguous or incomplete information. Mental models are about our shared understanding of the world.

I’m reminded of the great Harold Garfinkel, a sociologist and ethnomethodologist. One of his studies, sometimes referred to as the counseling experiment, has stuck with me since my undergraduate days. Unlike the quantitative research that is common in fields like behavioral economics, this experiment was qualitative in nature. In the study, ten students were told that research was being done to explore alternative means to psychotherapy as a way of giving advice about personal problems. The experimental participant was seen by an experimenter who pretended to be a counselor in training. The participant was asked to address to the "counselor" a series of questions that would permit a "yes" or "no" answer. The “counselor” gave answers via an intercom from an adjoining room. Unbeknownst to the participant, his “yes” or “no” answers were completely random. Subjects were asked to (privately) comment on each of the answers.

Here’s an excerpt of one of the cases discussed in Garfinkel’s Studies in Ethnomethodology:

SUBJECT: Ok, this is the situation that I am presented with. I happen to be of the Jewish faith and I have been dating a Gentile girl now for about two months. My dad is not directly opposed to this situation, but I feel at the same time that he is not exactly pleased with it. Mother feels that as long as Dad is not directly opposed to this situation that I should go ahead and continue dating until he makes some direct statement to the contrary. My reason for feeling why he is not too pleased with this is that he has never said don't date her, but at the same time he will come up with digs and sayings that make me feel very ill at ease about dating the girl.

My question is, do you feel under the present circumstances that I should continue or stop dating this girl? Let me put that in a positive way. Do you feel that I should continue dating this girl?

EXPERIMENTER: My answer is no.

SUBJECT: No. Well, that is kind of interesting. I kinda feel that there is really no great animosity between Dad and I but, well, perhaps he feels that greater dislike will grow out of this. I suppose or maybe it is easier for an outsider to see certain things that I am blind to at this moment. I would like to ask my second question now.


SUBJECT: Do you feel that I should have a further discussion with Dad about this situation or not? Should I have further discussion with Dad over this subject about dating the Gentile girl?

EXPERIMENTER: My answer is yes.

SUBJECT: Well I feel that is reasonable but I really don't know what to say to him. I mean he seems to be not really too understanding. In other words he seems to be afraid really to discuss the situation. I mean at least it appears that way to me so far. But I guess if it is worthwhile to me, if I really want to continue to date her that I will go on and have this discussion with Dad. I really don't know what to say because I mean I am dating her. I am not in love with her or anything but I really never know what is going to come out. I guess we should have a discussion based on what the future possibilities might be and how he would feel about that. He may not be too strongly opposed now because we are only dating, but perhaps he sees future complications that he would really like to get off his chest at the moment. I am ready for my third question now.

If after having my conversation with Dad and he says to continue dating her, but at the same time he gives me an impression that he is really not, he really does not want me to date her, but he is only doing it because he wants to be a good Dad, should under these conditions, should I still date the girl?

EXPERIMENTER: My answer is yes.

SUBJECT: Well I am actually surprised at the answer. I expected a no answer on that. Perhaps this is because you are not quite aware of my dad and his reactions and he seems to be the type of person that is sensitive and therefore he is very careful in the way that he will handle things. Even though he might have said go ahead and date her I perhaps would feel guilty in knowing that he really did not want me to continue to date her. Though I don't know that it would actually help the situation any. So, well, perhaps we will look into this further and that is another question. I am ready for the fourth question now.

[The conversation continues. You can read Studies in Ethnomethodology here]

The symbolic interactionist view demonstrated by ethnomethodology can be used to enhance our understanding of people in many domains. It provides one possible perspective on why people behave the way they do.

Garfinkel used so-called breaching experiments to demonstrate our amazing capacity for sense-making. By studying what happens when people’s expectations are violated, his research was able to uncover the taken-for-granted parts of social life, which often manifest themselves in social roles and social norms. In one of his classic experiments, he instructed students to return to their family home and pretend that they were lodgers. Needless to say that his students’ behavior appeared bizarre and at times disturbing to parents, which made apparent some of the conventions of everyday life that are usually unseen. Similarly, the behavioral economist Dan Ariely offered a thought experiment about market vs social norms: What would happen if you paid your mother in law for Thanksgiving dinner? It’s a simple but powerful example of taken-for-granted norms. Understanding social norms can also form an important foundation for behavior change initiatives.

A couple of years ago, I advised a company on relevant behavioral theories around saving for retirement. As part of the project, a qualitative research agency conducted focus groups and interviews with consumers. Their findings supported the usual basic ideas that are also found in behavioral economics: deferred gratification is difficult, long term savings feel remote or “invisible”, and normal people deal with money quite differently than economists or accountants. But there was another--more socially and symbolically grounded--insight that emerged. This was based on homework given to participants by the qualitative researchers. They were asked to behave in more budget conscious ways than they would normally do in social settings. For example, they could propose going to a McDonald’s for their next dinner out with friends or order a children’s meal. If asked to explain their behavior, they were instructed to say that they’re saving money for a future dinner by their “retired self”. The common thread among the—at times quite amusing—responses reported by participants was that people don’t like “good savers”. As the philosopher Alain de Botton once remarked:

We can frankly admit that to be described as a ‘saver’ is little short of an insult. Around the saver there hovers associations of miserliness, excessive caution, bloodlessness, renunciation and timidity.

Behavioral economic insights around present bias, loss aversion and inertia have informed behavior change programs (particularly Save More Tomorrow and changing pension enrollment defaults) that help people become better savers. A mental model or symbolic view of saving can tell us more about what it means to be a "good saver" in the first place. It's a label that may have more personal than social appeal.