Home » Rationalization

Another personal impediment to “Proper Thinking” is Rationalization.  If we want to improve our intellectual integrity and thinking prowess we need to be on guard from making rationalizations.

What is it?

I like Neel Burton’s definition:

The use of feeble but seemingly plausible arguments either to justify something that is difficult to accept (sour grapes) or to make it seem ‘not so bad after all’ (sweet lemons).

We do something not so smart (a bad decision or behavior), or hold conflicting ideas (beliefs vs evidence), or feel uncomfortable about something we find difficult to accept, so we make excuses to ourselves and others.  However, these aren’t genuine explanations. They’re manufactured excuses that are false or unauthentic yet masquerading as logical reasons.

We try to justify and explain after the fact, avoiding the true explanation by using self-serving reassurances that seem logical but really aren’t.

Why do we do it?

Each of us has a world-view and self-image.  We have a knee-jerk reaction to protecting that self-image at all costs.  It’s not human nature to admit our shortcomings and mistakes.  We have an innate desire to defend.

Rationalization is an ego defense mechanism used to protect our self-identity. It’s used to reduce psychological discomfort of holding contradictory beliefs or thoughts.  We don’t want to be embarrassed or feel like an idiot for making a bad decision, taking a stupid action or being mistaken about the beliefs we hold. We want to feel good on the inside that we’re maintaining consistency across actions, thoughts and beliefs.

It’s a natural reaction to an emotional conflict.  We need to explain away any discrepancy.  Yet it’s also a self-deception.  By rationalizing we don’t come to terms with reality.  We hide our true motives and shortcomings from oneself and others. We want to make reality fit our emotions.

“Questioning our own motives, and our own process, is critical to a skeptical and scientific outlook. We must realize that the default mode of human psychology is to grab onto comforting beliefs for purely emotional reasons, and then justify those beliefs to ourselves with post-hoc rationalizations.”  – Steven Novella

How do we fight it?

We have an innate difficulty:   Human beings are not rational. We are by nature rationalizing animals.  Thinking and changing represent major threats to the beliefs that make up our sense of self.

Any large change in a person’s outlook is only going to occur incrementally over a long period of time. This is critical to understand.  A person can’t jump from point A to point Z in one fell swoop.  It’s difficult enough to simply move from A to B; and then only if the person wants to adapt and change.  We have to embrace the concept of finding fault in our own thoughts and beliefs, and wanting to improve their accuracy.  Refine, refine, refine.  It should be a continuous process.

Some tips:

  • Be honest with yourself.
  • Be humble. Admit and take ownership for your shortcomings and mistakes.
  • Don’t self-delude.
  • Don’t deny reality.
  • Stop making excuses.
  • Decide for yourself you want to change and adapt.
  • Adapt, change, refine.

By doing so, you’ll gain self-esteem, courage, and integrity.  You’ll also grow as an individual, have a more accurate picture of reality and practice a high level of intellectual integrity.

“I mean by intellectual integrity the habit of deciding vexed questions in accordance with the evidence, or of leaving them undecided where the evidence is inconclusive. This virtue, though it is underestimated by almost all adherents of any system of dogma, is to my mind of the very greatest social importance and far more likely to benefit the world than Christianity or any other system of organized beliefs.”
Bertrand Russell

Bottom Line . . .

Embrace accuracy and change.  Refine, improve, grow.

(Featured image by Gregory Veen on flickr, licensed by CC BY-SA 2.0)

Some decent online sources: (there are many others of course)

As with any sourcing on the internet, links can go ‘dead’ after a time. If you find the above-mentioned links no longer working, try the WayBack Machine:  http://archive.org/web/web.php    It’s sometimes a good way to pull up and view websites that are no longer active.