Subscribe to newsletter
Thank you! Your submission has been received!
Oops! Something went wrong while submitting the form.

Do you know someone who doesn’t use their common sense?

A gentleman named Dr. Aaron T. Beck did. It was a gentleman named Dr. Sigmund Frued. To Frued (1856-1939) common sense had no part in helping people with their psychological struggles. To Beck (1921-2021) not using common sense was both unscientific and condescending. So, when Beck formulated cognitive behavior therapy, he included common sense. CBT is so effective it is now used all over the world. Using common sense increases happiness.

When I was growing up in New York City, common sense was also called street-smart, and anyone could have it. There was street-smart and book-smart. In New York both were respected. But if you had to choose, you would chose being street-smart. It meant you observed patterns, predicted outcomes, adapted accordingly, and succeeded. A taxi cab driver might use common sense all day long extremely successfully and not speak much English. Being street-smart is very democratic.

Being street-smart encompasses both having common sense and using common sense. We all have common sense. The ”common” in common sense refers, of course, to the fact that a large amount of practical intelligence is common to all humans.  We may all have it, but we don’t all use it.

Dr. Beck began formulating CBT because he saw that Freudian psychoanalysts, as well as traditional psychiatrists and behaviorists, neglected common sense in their methods of understanding human psychology. He saw that a person’s conscious thoughts, their reasoning and judgements, their private world was not regarded as a useful area of inquiry. And this made no sense to him.

In 1979 he wrote that, “By glossing over the patient’s attempts to define his problem in his own terms, and the efficacy of using his own rationality to solve his problems, the contemporary schools perpetuate a myth. The troubled person is led to believe that he can’t help himself and must seek out a professional healer when confronted with distress related to everyday problems of living…By debasing the value of common sense, this subtle indoctrination inhibits him from using his own judgment in analyzing and solving his problems.”

Daily living involves common sense, and it provides the starting point for a scientific understanding of our external world. For example, the common sense observations that unsupported bodies will fall, led to understanding the laws of physics, and water heated over a flame will boil, led to the laws of chemistry. Similarly, observations of our internal world provides the raw material for understanding human behavior.

The ordinary person has an understanding of themselves which enables them to interact with others in an adaptive way. Common sense includes observations and introspections by which someone determines why, or why not, they are happy.

Therefore, a kind of ordinary “self-help” can be used. For example, encouraging someone to focus on what is bothering them and then suggesting more sensible attitudes or more realistic solutions to problems. Giving practical advice does not always work, but it helps many of us, a lot of the time.

Consider the case of the compulsive hand-washer. He spends a great deal of time scrubbing his hands. He says that he is concerned that he may have come into contact with germs that could produce a serious disease if he does not keep his hands clean. He may know that his fear is far fetched, yet he continues even though it seriously interferes with his career, relationships, hobbies, maybe even sleeping and eating. The Freudian psychoanalytic explanation of this kind of behavior is that the person has an anal fixation or that he is trying to wash away the guilt stemming from some forbidden but unconscious wish.

When the person’s thinking is explored however, we learn that when he touches an object that may have bacteria on it, he has a thought that he may contract a terrible disease. He has a visual image of himself in a hospital bed dying from this disease. This visual image is so vivid that he believes that he already has the disease, which then produces anxiety. So, he rushes to the nearest sink.

The formulation of psychological problems in terms of incorrect premises and esoteric interpretations does not, it turns out, help the person. Psychological problems are not necessarily the product of mysterious impenetrable forces, but result simply from inadequate or incorrect information, from not distinguishing between imagination and reality.

CBT helps people to apply the same problem solving techniques he or she has used throughout his or her life. It helps a person to identify and question his or her thoughts, and to learn more realistic ways to formulate their experiences. The CBT approach brings understanding and treatment of psychological problems closer to everyday experience. Since the person has generally had numerous previous successes in correcting his or her misconceptions, the CBT approach makes sense to them. It is in line with his or her previous learning experiences.

CBT is a way of understanding human problems that includes a person’s conscious thoughts. A great deal of human life has to do with cognitive constructs such as self-image, self-esteem, and self-identity. Cognitive phenomena can be identified through introspection, and then they can be investigated.  So when we are suffering, we can trust our own common sense as a place to start to understand why and what to do to help ourselves. If that doesn’t work, we can ask for professional help. CBT is a common sense method of help.

Some say that knowledge is power. I say that having knowledge good, it is book-smart, but having it and using it, that is better, that is street-smart. That is real power.

Freud, S. (1917). Introductory Lectures on Psychoanalysis. Penguin (published 1991).

Wilhelm, S., Stakete, G., & Beck, A.T. (2006). Cognitive Therapy for Obsessive-Compulsive Disorder: A Guide for Professionals. New Harbinger Publications.