In order to survive and interact with the other members of the society, it is crucial for us to understand what the other people are thinking about and what the underlying factors that contribute to their behavior are. In our daily life, people are continuously interpreting and explaining others behavior, sometimes even without aware of it themselves. How does this knowledge of interpreting the others come about? And is it a reliable method?Most people are using common sense explanation to interpret human behavior, while social scientists will explain our world by social science theories.
What are they? And which one can give a more reliable and accurate account for human behavior?Common Sense Explanations are formed basing on individual’s past experiences or were passed down from the last generations. It is the most basic and simple form of knowledge that helps us to survive. For instance, people understand that it will be hurt when a ball is throwing at them and in result, they will run away from it. We use the common sense to perceive the world we are living in. It is unimaginable if a person does not possess any common sense at all.
Social Science Theories, like the theories in natural science, are derived from scientific methods. They are either induced or deduced from different task or experiment. But since the subject matter in social sciences is completely different from that of natural science, observation, survey and interview which sometimes involves a control group, are the methodology used to test the experimental hypotheses, instead of using laboratory experiments. Hence, social science theories are backed up by empirical studies and data, and therefore should be more widely applicable, objective and reliability to explain human behavior.
Unlike social science theories, “common sense” is held by everyone. Therefore, people can draw on this knowledge immediately when they want to analysis behavior of the others and giving a faster response to the situation. However, the strength of common sense is also its greatest weakness. In many cases, common sense explanation cannot give us a satisfactory answer because it has oversimplified the circumstance. For instance, it is a general belief that the more violent movies a child watches, the more aggressive he will be. People may neglect other factors, such as family backgrounds, in contributing to children’s aggressive behavior, which had proved to be an equally crucial by many social scientists.
In addition, human behaviors are complex as well as unique to each individual. Different culture, race, living environment and family history will lead to the formation of different behaviors. Similarly, common sense explanation varies in different culture, society and individual, and therefore, actually is not the same to everyone in our society. How can a foreigner understand all the traditional attitudes and values of a Chinese? Likewise, it is not easy for us to comprehend all the behaviors of the foreigners. As a result, there will be bias if we rely on common sense explanation as it is too generalized and oversimplified without really investigating the underlying factors behind the scene.
In contrast, social sciences theories can supplement the weakness of common sense explanation as each theory is based on a numbers of hypotheses which in turn will be tested, though the methodology used is somewhat different from that of natural science. In other words, social science theories are more reliable and valid than that of common sense explanations. Moreover, social science theories are more widely applicable as they are derived from a great numbers of data which are collected from different channels and people. Some people may argue that some social sciences theories are similar to our common sense explanations, for which is a coincident that we cannot deny since many hypotheses are formed with the basis of common sense assumptions.
People can use common sense to explain or judge most things we encounter in our daily life. However, when we come to analyze more complicated matters, such as human behaviors, common sense explanation alone would be insufficient. In these circumstances, social science theories, which have been undergoing empirical researches and experiments, are more reliable.
We cannot ignore the importance of “common sense” since it is a basic knowledge that people possessed, whereas social science theories may not be known to most people. And in many cases common sense is the foundation of many hypotheses, and thus is the origin of a theory. But it is crucial to note that when people want to have an in-depth, comparatively reliable and valid explanation, social science theories should be employed.
Roth (1990), Introduction to Psychology, United Kingdom: The Open University.
Gross (1992), Psychology: The Science of Mind and Behaviour, p.19-23, London: Hodder & Stoughton