Posts Tagged ‘Once You Know the Answer’

Press Release: Everything is Obvious by Duncan Watts

March 30th, 2011



Tara Gilbride, Director of Publicity, Crown Business,









Everyone knows that Common Sense is Essential for Solving Problems in Today’s World. In Politics, Business, Marketing, and Policy, What we need is More Common Sense, Right?


Wrong. Based on years of research and numerous experiments, a new book by
Yahoo! Scientist Duncan J. Watts shows why using common sense actually
undermines our ability to address complex issues facing the world — from policy and government planning, to business strategy, marketing and social science


It also upends theory that a few ‘influentials’ can spread your message,
spark a trend or help you create a hit product or company


“Every once in a while, a book comes along that forces us to re-examine what we know and how we know it. This is one of those books. And while it is not always pleasurable to realize the many ways in which we are wrong, it is useful to figure out the cases where our intuitions fail us.”

–Dan Ariely, James B. Duke Professor of Behavioral Economics at Duke University, and New York Times bestselling author of Predictably Irrational


“A brilliant account of why, for every hard question, there’s a common sense answer that’s simple, seductive, and spectacularly wrong. If you are suspicious of pop sociology, rogue economics, and didactic history – or, more importantly, if you aren’t! – Everything is Obvious is necessary reading.

It will literally change the way you think.”

–Eric Klinenberg, Professor of Sociology. New York University


“A truly important work that’s bound to rattle the cages of pseudo- and self-proclaimed experts in every field. If this book doesn’t force you to re-examine what you’re doing, something is wrong with you.”

–Guy Kawasaki, author of Enchantment: The Art of Changing Hearts, Minds, and Actions, and co-founder of


*Once You Know the Answer

By Duncan Watts

Crown Business, on sale March 29, 2011


Common sense is almost universally regarded as a good thing.  And deservedly so–it’s a miraculous piece of human intelligence that enables us to understand and be guided by hidden rules that we don’t even realize exist. It is perfect for everyday problem solving and guides us on issues ranging from deciding what to wear in the morning to what to say to a colleague or boss to where and when to cross the street. Common sense is so useful, in fact, that its limitations are rarely apparent to us. But in EVERYTHING IS OBVIOUS: Once You Know the Answer (Crown Business, March 29th) Yahoo! Principal Researcher Duncan J. Watts reveals how common sense reasoning misleads us into believing that we understand more about the world of human behavior than we do. “Using common sense actually undermines our ability to understand the larger world around us,” says Watts, a physicist turned sociologist who has long been at the forefront of new era in social science made possible by the technological revolution in mobile, web and internet communications. “The elaborate intelligence we call common sense is so good at what it does that we often try to use it to help solve problems. But in this capacity,” he explains, “common sense fails.”  

 Thanks to new technological innovations in social networking communication, Watts has been able to study human behavior in an entirely new way, conducting experiments that harness the power of the internet. He is the foremost researcher in the world on how social networks work. For example, he and his colleagues ran experiments that used music sharing to gauge the impact of social influence on new music; subsequently, he used Amazon’s crowdsourcing website Mechanical Turk to assess the effect of pay on performance (output increased but not quality). He caused a media stir when he examined email networks and essentially debunked the popular idea at the heart of Malcolm Gladwell’s The Tipping Point that there are certain “influencers” who have the power to change trends and make products successful. This was backed up by an experiment that ran computer simulations to test the relative effectiveness of “influencers” in triggering social epidemic in social networks. He has mapped the diffusion of 76M URLs on twitter and found that although the most prominent individuals were likely to be the most influential, it was often “ordinary influencers” who were likely to be the most cost effective in terms of influencing others.


So what does this have to do with common sense? In his research and experiments, Watts observed that situations involving corporations, cultures, markets, nation-states and global institutions exhibit a very different kind of complexity from every day situations. These are problems that involve anticipating or predicting the behavior of large numbers of people, in situations that are distant from us either in space or time. This may sound like an unlikely thing to do, but in fact we do it all the time in marketing, business, government and strategic planning. And when we do, common sense turns out to suffer from a number of errors that systematically mislead us. We convince ourselves that we understand why certain products or companies or policies succeed when we really don’t. This is why we are so bad at predicting the next hit product or song or hot company. And it’s why governments and policy makers are often so wrong in anticipating and incentivizinig the behavior of their constituents.


In showing how to overcome the limits of common sense, EVERYTHING IS OBVIOUS has major implications for business, marketing, governments and politics. Rather than base plans on our ability to predict the future, we devise strategies that don’t depend on our predictions being correct. In some cases, in fact, Watts argues we need to rethink the whole philosophy of planning altogether, placing less emphasis on planning for the future and more on measuring and reacting. Zara, for example, the Spanish clothing retailer, rather than trying to anticipate what shoppers will buy next season, sends out agents to sour shopping malls and public gathering centers to observe what people are already wearing. They then design, produce, ship and sell new garments in just two weeks. This tactic is also used extensively in the online world where companies such as Google, Yahoo, and Microsoft are able to optimize ad placement, content selections, search results and more by reacting to immediate data. Other methods such as crowdsourcing, field experiments, and bootstrapping can be deployed in both business and in policy settings to improve performance and avoid disasters.  


Common sense is the essence of social intelligence and is deeply embedded in our legal system, in our political philosophy and in professional training. All this is as it should be. But in EVERYTHING IS OBVIOUS, Watts will force readers to hold these beliefs up to a spotlight and ultimately to re-examine everything they do. 


ABOUT THE AUTHOR: Duncan Watts is a principal research scientist at Yahoo! Labs, where he directs the Human Social Dynamics group. Prior to joining Yahoo!, he was a full professor of sociology at Columbia University. He has also serves on the external faculty of the Santa Fe Institute and Nuffield College, Oxford. His research on social networks and collective dynamics has appeared in a wide range of journals, from Nature, Science, and Physical Review Letters to the American Journal of Sociology and Harvard Business Review. He is also the author of Six Degrees: the Science of a Connected Age and Small Worlds: the Dynamics of Networks between Order and Randomness. He holds a B.Sc. in Physics from the Australian Defence Force Academy, from which he also received his officer’s commission in the Royal Australian Navy, and a Ph.D. in Theoretical and Applied Mechanics from Cornell University. He has been featured in the national media, including in Fast Company, New York Magazine and NPR. He currently lives in New York, N.Y.



Also available as an eBook

For more information, see



By Duncan Watts * March 29, 2011

Crown Business  * $26.00  Hardcover * ISBN: 978-0-385-53168-9

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The Crown Publishing Group