dan ariely

In psychology and logic, rationalization (also known as making excuses) is an unconscious defense mechanism in which perceived controversial behaviors or feelings are logically justified and explained in a rational or logical manner in order to avoid any true explanation, and are made consciously tolerable – or even admirable and superior – by plausible means.

Rationalization encourages irrational or unacceptable behavior, motives, or feelings and often involves ad hoc hypothesizing. This process ranges from fully conscious (e.g. to present an external defense against ridicule from others) to mostly subconscious (e.g. to create a block against internal feelings of guilt).

People rationalize for various reasons. Rationalization may differentiate the original deterministic explanation of the behavior or feeling in question. Sometimes rationalization occurs when we think we know ourselves better than we do. It is also an informal fallacy of reasoning (an argument whose stated premises fail to support its proposed conclusion). According to the Diagnostic and Statistical Manual of Mental Disorders (DSM-IV), rationalization occurs ‘when the individual deals with emotional conflict or internal or external stressors by concealing the true motivations for his or her own thoughts, actions, or feelings through the elaboration of reassuring or self serving but incorrect explanations.’

Based on anecdotal and survey evidence, medical ethicist John Banja states that the medical field features a disproportionate amount of rationalization invoked in the ‘covering up’ of mistakes (here, medical errors). Common excuses made are: ‘Why disclose the error? The patient was going to die anyway.’ ‘Telling the family about the error will only make them feel worse.’ ‘It was the patient’s fault. If he wasn’t so (obese, sick etc), this error wouldn’t have caused so much harm.’ ‘Well, we did our best. These things happen.’ ‘If we’re not totally and absolutely certain the error caused the harm, we don’t have to tell.’ ‘They’re dead anyway, no point in blaming.’

British neurologist and psychoanalyst Ernest Jones contributed the term ‘rationalization’ to psychoanalysis in 1908, defining it as ‘the inventing of a reason for an attitude or action the motive of which is not recognized.’ Although Jones had not coined the term (the Oxford English Dictionary records the year of its first use as 1846) he was the first to employ it in the context of psychoanalysis: ‘No one will admit that he ever deliberately performed an irrational act, and any act that might appear so is immediately justified by…providing a false explanation that has a plausible ring of rationality.’ The term was taken up almost immediately by Sigmund Freud to account for the explanations offered for neurotic symptoms, and was later developed further by his daughter Anna Freud.

However the concept itself (as opposed to the term) can be traced back millennia earlier, to Roman rhetorician Quintilian and classical rhetoric: ‘The ‘pat excuse’ is the color, a frequent technical term among the rhetoricians for any approach that would present an action in the most favorable possible light.’ By the eighteenth century, it was almost a commonplace that, were a man to consider his actions, ‘he will soon find, that such of them, as strong inclination and custom have prompted him to commit, are generally dressed out and painted with all the false beauties [color] which, a soft and flattering hand can give them.’

What psychoanalysis added was the specific idea of the motives that were glossed or colored being unconscious. By the 1940s, Austrian-American psychoanalyst Otto Fenichel could distinguish ‘various types of rationalization…Emotional attitudes become permissible on condition that they are justified as ‘reasonable,’ but equally ‘Defensive attitudes and resistances, which seem irrational because their real purpose is unconscious, frequently are ‘rationalized’ by the ego’s foisting other secondary purposes upon them.’

For a near-determinist (believer that all causes can be traced to a past event) like Canadian psychiatrist Eric Berne, one’s ‘important decisions are already made…in early childhood’: thereafter ‘other decisions…are ‘directed’ decisions rationalized on spurious grounds.’ Once a decision has been made on unconscious grounds, ‘without the individual’s being aware of the real forces behind it. he takes upon himself the task of finding justifications for it…’rationalization.’

French psychoanalyst Jacques Lacan in his concept of ‘meconnaissance’ (‘misrecognize,’ the ‘mirror stage’ when an infant thinks their reflection is another person) came very close to the same idea: ‘everything that the ego neglects, scotomizes, misconstrues…everything that it ignores, exhausts, and binds in the significations that it receives from language.’ Some later psychoanalysts might take a more positive view of the process, suggesting that ‘Intellectualization and rationalization…bridge the gap between immature mechanisms and those of maturity’; but to object relations theory it could be part of a more sinister process whereby the mind ‘detaches feelings from their true locus and attaches them to the exact reverse; it falsifies judgement; it splits intellect from feeling and enslaves reason…a process called rationalization.’

A rather different, but perhaps complementary, approach to rationalization comes from ‘cognitive dissonance.’ ‘In 1957, American social psychologist Leon Festinger argued that when people become aware that their attitudes, thoughts, and beliefs (‘cognitions’) are inconsistent with one another, this realization brings with it an uncomfortable state of tension (‘dissonance’). One answer to the discomfort of the situation is that ‘their minds rationalize it by inventing a comfortable illusion.’ Thus for example ‘people who start to smoke again after quitting for a while perceive smoking to be less dangerous to their health, compared to their views when they decided to stop’ – thereby averting their ‘post-decisional regret’ through their new rationalization.

In a similar way, acts of aggression will often be seen as, ‘reasonable, well justified, even necessary…rationalizing their self-interest in these ways’; so that, to cite Martin Luther King, Jr., ‘It seems to be a fact of life that human beings cannot continue to do wrong without eventually reaching out for some rationalization to clothe their act.’ The same may be said of the collective scale. ‘When groups commit aggression, they, too, rationalize their acts with high-sounding words…rationalizing their own self-interested desires,’ so that, for example, ‘The own God is the right God. The other God is the strange God….Our own soldiers take care of the poor families; the enemy rapes them.’

Such collective rationalizations come close perhaps to the communal illusions of which Freud wrote as ‘derived from human wishes…Must not the assumptions that determine our political regulations be called illusions as well? and…may not other cultural assets of which we hold a high opinion and by which we let our lives be ruled be of a similar nature?’

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