Sta Hungry Stay Foolish

Stay Hungry. Stay Foolish.

A blog by Leon Oudejans

Common sense is not for the common man

23 January 2015


This week I was talking to a Kenyan friend and during my conversation I got the following remark: “Common sense is not for the common man”. This remark puzzled and intrigued me. I asked my friend what does apply to the common man?? I couldn’t resist suggesting the following with a smiley: “Food? Beer? Sex? Today rather than tomorrow?”

“Mostly food” was the answer. “Food, sex, beer. In that order. And definitely today/now.” And also: “For a ‘common man’ tomorrow is vague. Tomorrow is a distance thus [he/she] lives for now”.

During my 2 visits and my many conversations, I had clearly noticed that it is rather common in Kenya to hustle for today’s food and today’s bills. So far I had assumed that this behaviour was poverty related. My friend however is not poor at all and therefore this comment made me wonder whether my poverty assumption might have been out of context.

My friend’s remark left me thinking if this comment would also apply to other countries including The Netherlands. And also left me puzzled whether thinking about tomorrow is a luxury – rather than a neccesity – for those who can afford it. I am now inclined to believe that it actually indeed is.

Recently an interesting behavioural study, conducted by Prof Gijs van Houwelingen, was published. His dissertation is about the question why some people are more inclined to adhere to their core values in a certain situation while others are seduced by short-term temptations. In our timeframe this is indeed a very relevant issue.

Behaving morally requires the ability to act on long-term goals and commitments, and to overcome the lure of short-lived joys. How are we able to do that? In his dissertation he argues that cognitive abstraction allows us to concentrate on what we find important in the long run (‘stable drivers’). On the other hand, concrete cognition, enhances the effect of short-lived influences (‘fleeting drivers’).

Scientifically, this situational sensitivity of cognition is called construal level. Abstract cognition, or high-construal level, implies taking a ‘mental step back’ from the here and now. Because of this, high-construal level facilitates the expression of stable drivers in behaviour. Thinking concretely, or low-construal level, makes us more susceptible to situational influences.

In his doctoral research, Prof Gijs van Houwelingen discovered that people in high-construal level apply moral rules and norms to decide on punishment. People in low-construal level, however, use situational factors to determine appropriate levels of discipline. Additionally, he validated that construal level differs between individuals; some people tend to think more abstractly, whereas others tend to think more concretely.

So, construal level works a little like a ‘filter’. High level construal facilitates the expression of stable moral principles and norms while muting the influence of the situation. Low construal level has the opposite effect.

I see a clear parallel between common sense, cognitive abstraction, and core values while hustling is a clear synonym for a short-term focus.

Common sense is not for the common man. Wow………..


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