As the saying goes: “It’s only common sense.” But for Duncan Watts, PhD ’97, common sense isn’t a dependable source of folksy wisdom—in fact, it can be reductive and even dangerous.
Pioneering network scientist Duncan Watts, PhD '97, tackles the fallacy of common sense
By Beth Saulnier
H arry Potter author J. K. Rowling probably didn't mean to conduct a sociology experiment when she published her latest book, a crime novel about a one-legged detective investigating a supermodel's suicide. But as Duncan Watts, PhD '97, wrote in an essay for Bloomberg.com in July, that's pretty much what she did.
Rowling published the book, The Cuckoo's Calling, under a pseudonym; while it got strong reviews, it sold fewer than 1,500 copies. Then its true authorship came to light—and it rocketed to the top of the bestseller lists.
For Watts, a sociologist and network theorist at Microsoft Research who was recently tapped as an A. D. White Professor-at-Large, the case echoed an online experiment he'd done, dubbed Music Lab, in which 30,000 people were asked to listen to, rate, and download songs by unfamiliar bands. Some of the participants—who were randomly separated into "worlds," or iterations of the experiment—could see how often others had downloaded the songs; the rest didn't know. The researchers found that when people could see what others liked, "inequality of success" increased; popular songs got more downloads, and unpopular songs got fewer. "Second and more surprisingly, each song's popularity was incredibly unpredictable," Watts writes. "One song, for example, came in first out of forty-eight we sampled in one 'world,' but it came in fortieth in another." So what made success more likely? The more or less random situation of having a few early downloads, which set a song on the path to popularity—a phenomenon Watts calls "cumulative advantage."
Watts's point, as it pertains to Rowling, is that quality is hardly a predictor of success—evinced by the fact that a critically well-received work by the writer of the most successful book series of all time went nowhere until it latched onto the coattails of a boy wizard. There's no intrinsic reason, he argues, that The Cuckoo's Calling became a bestseller—or, for that matter, why the first Harry Potter launched a global juggernaut of movies and theme parks, when equally worthy works of young adult fiction do not. But Watts admits that his view is hard for many people to swallow. "People just cannot accept that you got struck by lightning," he says. "They think there has to be a reason. And there is a reason—it's called cumulative advantage—but we don't like that. We like the 'it's special' reason. You try to tell Harry Potter fans that it's just an ordinary book that, in a different version of reality, they wouldn't have bothered to pay attention to, and they'll think you're crazy."
The Harry Potter phenomenon is one of many Watts explores in his most recent book, Everything Is Obvious, Once You Know the Answer. Subtitled How Common Sense Fails Us, the book examines the fallacy of conventional wisdom in explaining complex systems—why, say, the notions of economy that we apply to our own households don't translate to international financial markets. If one person can balance a household budget or settle a dispute between neighbors, why can't Congress fix the deficit, or the right leader bring peace to the Middle East? "We attribute collective change to individuals," Watts observes. "This is why we compensate CEOs the way we do; why we lionize Steve Jobs; why we have the 'great man' view of history; why we think the President actually has an effect on the economy. We're always overestimating the importance of individuals in driving social change."
Such a message isn't necessarily popular or easily understood, notes Watts's former graduate adviser, math professor Steve Strogatz. "I think it's hard for people to appreciate the book," he says. "When I look at the reviews on Amazon, a lot of readers want a simple, facile message. It's difficult to get a handle on what he's trying to say. He's not saying that the great individual carries the day, but he doesn't deny that great individuals exist. So what is the point? As far as I can see, it's that it's very hard to make these things scientific. It would be much more commercial, and perhaps better for him professionally, if he came up with a simpler message. But he's not going to do that, because he's honest. So he gives you, as clearly as he can, his very complicated message. And that takes integrity, because it's a hard sell."
While the book may not offer user-friendly tropes in the vein of Malcolm Gladwell, to some in academia and beyond, Watts's approach offers an intriguing and potentially powerful way to approach complex problems—particularly in an era when the Internet can facilitate virtual experiments on a massive scale. Cornell sociologist Michael Macy notes that Watts's nomination as an A. D. White Professor was supported by a remarkably diverse group of faculty—not just in sociology, but in economics, human development, management, communication, physics, math, ILR, and computer science. "Duncan continues to have a transformative influence on the social and behavioral sciences," Macy says. "He's not only a gifted writer but a charismatic speaker, with an uncanny ability to make even highly technical topics come to life for broad audiences of non-specialists."
A central part of Watts's argument is that hindsight isn't 20/20; it's reductive and unreliable. In a section on the Mona Lisa, for example (see excerpt), he discusses how the painting languished in relative obscurity for centuries, only becoming world famous after it was stolen from the Louvre in the early 1900s—but since the idea of its greatness owing to a fluke is so inherently unsatisfying, people ascribe post-facto "common sense" explanations. (It's the smile! It's the fantastical background! It's the genius of Leonardo da Vinci!) "Common sense is the mythology—the religion—of the social world," Watts says. "It's the simple answer that maps directly onto our experience, the explanation we need to make things make sense. So we hear thunder and say, 'The gods are fighting.' That's something we understand; people get angry and throw things. Common sense is socially adaptive. If we constantly had to grapple with the complexity of the world, we wouldn't be able to get out of bed in the morning."
In the preface to Everything Is Obvious, Watts cites a sixty-year-old paper in which sociologist Paul Lazarsfeld described the findings of a study of servicemen during and after World War II—for example, the fact that men from rural backgrounds had better morale than their urban counterparts. That makes perfect sense, Watts notes; after all, rural men in the Forties were accustomed to harsher living and more physical labor, so it follows that military life would seem more pleasant. But then Lazarsfeld pulls a switcheroo: it was actually city natives who were happier in the Army. "Of course, had the reader been told the real answers in the first place she could just as easily have reconciled them with other things that she already thought she knew," Watts writes. "'City men are more used to working in crowded conditions and in corporations, with chains of command, strict standards of clothing and social etiquette, and so on. That's obvious!'"
The point, Watts writes, is that if an answer and its opposite can seem equally obvious through the right mental gymnastics, there's something wrong with the idea of "obviousness" in the first place. "We make this mistake so often, and it really hurts us," Watts says. "We can't understand the social world just by telling a bunch of cute stories. You need theories, experiments, data. It's tricky and counterintuitive, and everything is more complicated than you think it is. Your intuition is always misleading you into thinking you understand things that you don't."