What Is Conventional Wisdom?

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What Is Conventional Wisdom?

Conventional Wisdom

Conventional wisdom refers to commonly held and widely accepted ideas and beliefs. It can encompass ideas that are generally held by the majority of people as well as long-accepted expert opinions within a field or institution.

This type of knowledge can have both benefits and drawbacks. Sometimes these ideas allow people to understand the majority consensus and reach conclusions quickly. In other cases, conventional wisdom can make it more difficult to think creatively and come up with alternative solutions to problems. 

The modern use of the term conventional wisdom is credited to the economist John Kenneth Galbraith who discussed the subject in his 1958 book The Affluent Society. Galbraith described conventional wisdom as a factor that increased institutional and societal resistance to change.

Signs of Conventional Wisdom

Conventional wisdom is evident in many aspects of everyday life. Some signs include:

  • Accepting things without question
  • Not challenging information that fits with what you expect to find
  • Believing that the majority of people think something is true
  • Assuming that the majority opinion must be true
  • Thinking that something is true simply because it sounds reasonable
  • Accepting something as truth due to tradition or authority

Any time you do make an assumption automatically without giving it much thought, you may be relying on conventional wisdom as a guide. It is important to remember that while these ideas are accepted, it does not mean that they are accurate.

Conventional wisdom often relies on accepting things based on faith in the opinions and expertise of others. The problem is that this knowledge isn’t necessarily rooted in verifiable evidence.

In many cases, its genesis may lie in anecdotal observations, superstitions, folklore, misunderstandings, or even badly designed research.

Types

Conventional wisdom can apply to a wide range of subjects. Some areas where you might encounter such thinking:

  • Politics
  • Government
  • Education
  • Healthcare
  • Medicine
  • Organizations and institutions
  • Science
  • Academics
  • Religion
  • Economics
  • Wellness

In all of these areas, people working in the field frequently rely on a body of knowledge that serves to inform and guide future ideas and actions. While people in these fields are doing research and innovating new solutions, much of this exploration is still built on a basis of generally agreed-upon knowledge.

The use or acceptability of a conventional idea can also depend on its relevance to a person's current situation. If something seems more salient, it may also be seen as more accurate.

Examples

In the field of politics, conventional wisdom may consist of talking points that are repeated so frequently that they are accepted with little scrutiny whether they are accurate or not.

An example of conventional wisdom in health was the once widespread belief among both consumers and medical professionals that smoking cigarettes was not risky behavior. It was only after research and significant public health campaigns that people began to change their beliefs about the serious health risks posed by smoking.

Uses

This type of knowledge can have a few different uses. It can serve as a way to gauge the consensus of the majority of a population. Whether the idea itself is true or not, knowing that most people believe it to be true can provide information about the needs, priorities, or opinions of a group.

Conventional wisdom can also act as something of a mental shortcut. Rather than having to investigate every aspect of a problem, relying on conventional wisdom can help people make decisions or reach conclusions quickly.

Relying on conventional wisdom might be useful when:

  • You don’t have time to analyze every aspect of a situation or every available option
  • It’s important to obtain consensus in the group
  • Conforming to the group and fitting in is important
  • You are dealing with a group or organization that is resistant to new ideas

It’s also important to recognize that conventional wisdom can be correct. Every field has knowledge that originates in the expertise and experience of members of that group. You may find that the conventional approach is the most accurate or useful.

Impact

Because conventional wisdom usually goes unquestioned, it can create problems when incorrect ideas gain wide acceptance. This can make exploring new ideas much more difficult.

For example, conventional wisdom used to suggest that ulcers were caused by stress. While this idea prevailed for years, it wasn’t until researchers challenged it that the actual underlying cause, a specific bacteria, was discovered.

In cases such as this, incorrect conventional wisdom can interfere with a person's health and the type of medical care they receive.

Conventional ideas can become a form of functional fixedness, making it more difficult to come up with creative ways of answering a question or dealing with a problem. Fixed ideas about a problem interfere with the ability to think outside of the box or find new ways of tackling the issue.

Conventional beliefs can also be very slow to change. Even as evidence mounts to counter an idea, conventional ideas can persist.

The good news is; however, that this type of thinking and knowledge isn’t static. Over time, as research supports new ideas and demonstrates that former ideas were incorrect, changes begin to take hold and flourish.

Tips

If the conventional ideas about a topic don’t seem helpful or accurate, there are things that you can do to challenge them and test new ways of thinking. Some ways you might approach this:

  • Explore the history of the idea: Spend some time researching how this idea came to be in the first place. Is there a body of research that it is based upon? What evidence supports its accuracy? Is there any evidence or data that contradicts the idea?
  • Research alternative ideas: Spend some time coming up with alternative hypotheses to explain the phenomenon. Research these new ideas and test them for their accuracy.
  • Talk to other people: You can also discuss your new ideas with others to get a better idea of how other people might view these alternative explanations. What seems like a good idea to you might strike others as irrational or illogical. Other people may also be able to point out other ideas or explanations that you might not have considered.

When you encounter ideas that are rooted in conventional wisdom, it often makes sense to scrutinize them to assess their validity and accuracy. Questioning this wisdom can help inspire further inquiry that can either support or refute old ideas and potentially lead to new and more helpful explanations.

A Word From Verywell

Conventional wisdom is often characterized as a hindrance to creative thinking. Because it leads to deeply entrenched ideas that are rarely evaluated for their accuracy, it can be very difficult to change. Reconsidering conventional wisdom can often lead to new innovations.

Changing conventional beliefs isn't always easy and can sometimes be met with resistance and other undesirable outcomes. For example, some research suggests that when new health or science recommendations challenge conventional wisdom, people may experience a decreased trust in scientific information in general.

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