The phrase “it makes sense” has a lot going on in it, most of which we don’t pay much attention to… and that can create problems. I explore what that’s about and how to watch out for “confirmation bias” – the big booby trap in personal and group sense-making. I then dig underneath a similarly problematic phrase – “common sense” – questioning how common “common sense” usually is. Finally, I look at what might be involved in actually discovering or developing a collective sense of things that is common enough for all of us to use together.
MAKING SENSE = UNDERSTANDING
When I say something “makes sense” to me, what does that mean? It turns out it can mean a number of different things – and that it is important to notice how different those meanings are, and which meaning is at play in what’s going on in any given situation.
First of all, when I say “that makes sense”, I may simply be saying that I understand it. I don’t necessarily mean I agree with it or find it useful or congruent with my usual ways of thinking. I’m simply saying that the communication is “clear”, that I track it or “get” what the speaker or writer is trying to say. Technically, I’m saying that I think I can replicate their meaning in my own mind. So that’s the first way something can “make sense”.
However, if I’m TRYING TO make sense of something, that means I’m trying to translate it into terms I can understand – I’m seeking clarification, explanation, examples, or something else to help me understand it better. Or I may be trying to see its purpose or to put it in a context that’s meaningful to me.
These ways of “making sense” bridge over into another meaning for the term, which I want to explore more deeply in the rest of this essay….
MAKING SENSE = MY SENSE OF THINGS
The kind of “making sense” I want to examine here more closely is how a communication or situation seems reasonable or coherent TO ME – because it aligns with what I already “know” or with my own personal ways of knowing. This kind of “making sense” has more dimensions than the first kind – which refers to just understanding something. This kind of making sense involves many different forms of reasonableness and “alignment” between what’s said and what I (or others) think. Consider the following varieties of making sense:
Something makes sense because….
- It fits (or aligns) with my experience; I’ve seen things like it and I’m somewhat familiar with what’s involved, so this particular thing seems reasonable to me in light of that.
- It fits with my worldview – which is the coherent set of understandings I’ve developed about life in general – and so it seems reasonable to me from that big perspective.
- It fits with various specific things I already know or believe about the topic, so it seems reasonable in that way.
Although each of these three points of alignment and reasonableness are subtly different, they are very similar and overlap in ways that add up to my overall “sense of reality”. Thus they bridge over into the next three forms of alignment:
Something makes sense because….
- It fits with my habitual sensibilities about life, my unconscious assumptions and ways of responding.
- It fits with my needs, values, and other underlying (often unconscious) factors that motivate my choices.
- It fits with what i consider good judgment – it seems to be practical or advisable under the circumstances.
So it makes sense to me.
MAKING SENSE BASED ON SOMETHING OTHER THAN ME
Notice that 1-6 above are all about me and what I consider good, right and true. But let’s look at three other fundamental aspects of “making sense” that are not quite so much about me:
Something makes sense because….
- It fits with testable, evidential reality – which is the realm of science – which (if done well) offers us a pretty grounded version of reasonableness.
- It fits with itself – it has internal coherence – which is the realm of logic – which deals with the structure of reasonableness itself. It all fits together as a whole.
- It fits with authorities, traditions or communities I trust (which feeds us back into 1-6 above, with a nod to 7 and 8) – especially when there’s lots of agreement among those sources of authority. That community of agreement creates a powerful sense of reasonableness, one that’s really solid and dependable! If all those respected people think that way about it, it must be true!
The more these forms of “fit” and “alignment” add together, the more things seem “reasonable”. That can be great, but notice how it feeds into “confirmation bias”. Confirmation bias refers to our psychological tendency to seek out and accept information that aligns with our already existing beliefs and understandings. It also says we prefer statements that come from authorities we trust and tend to ignore or reject or never even see information that doesn’t align with our preferred sense of things. Under the influence of confirmation bias, we seldom seriously consider anything that “doesn’t make sense” to us on first look. So our “what makes sense” filter is a really powerful one, for better AND for worse.
Given that the fact that something makes sense to us is so booby-trapped, where can we turn for better sense-making?
DOES “COMMON SENSE” EXIST?
Consider the notion of “common sense” – as in “it’s just common sense!” Unfortunately, that phrase usually assumes or asserts that other people share our own understandings or sensibilities. This assumption is usually unconscious or at least not well researched. In fact, more often than not, one’s own sense of “common sense” is NOT shared by everyone else. It is a product of one’s self-centered view of the world and the echo-chamber dynamics of confirmation bias. We seldom check it out because it seems so obvious – and because checking it out could undermine what we think we know!
Discovering a sense that is truly “common” to a larger population would involve diverse people talking together, listening to and considering each other’s views, information and stories while they all temporarily suspend their reactive judgments (of both agreement and rejection) about everyone else’s beliefs. Even better, they might search for higher, deeper forms of common sense by “sensing into” whatever situation they’re considering together, opening themselves up to unexpected things that none of them saw before, but that they all find true and useful.
The search for AUTHENTIC common sense – i.e., broadly inclusive shared understandings and collective perceptions – involves replacing confirmation bias with self-awareness, humility, curiosity, and real sharing and listening. But so often we’re faced with profound differences between us – both in WHAT makes sense to each of us and in HOW we each go about making sense in the first place (different “cognitive styles”). So we also have to be able to tolerate things being unsettled while we do the hard work of listening, sharing, thinking, feeling and exploring – individually and together. Disturbing differences tend – when they cook together long enough in the stewpot of reflective, respectful conversation – to generate energies and possibilities that lift us together into higher (fuller, more comprehensive) levels of understanding. That’s actually where we discover our truest, most useful common sense. And there are methods to find it.
Of course, after whatever group “aha!” we stumble into, we then face the work of testing our shared realizations out in the world (see 7, above) and examining their logical consistency (see 8 above) and weaving them into our larger understandings and communities (see all the other definitions of “making sense” above).
So collective sense-making is quite possible. It can often feel challenging, but the result can be profoundly valuable. As we seek to support and accomplish true common sense, we can keep the above dynamics in mind and apply participatory processes and guidance to help us navigate the challenges. At the end of that journey, we’ll have some potent common ground on which to stand while we do everything else we need to do together.
- EMPOWERING PUBLIC WISDOM
- PARTICIPATORY SUSTAINABILITY
- THE TAO OF DEMOCRACY
- REFLECTIONS ON EVOLUTIONARY ACTIVISM