27 Mar The True Nature of Reality: Rationalization – The Lies We Tell Ourselves – Part 32
“We purposely engage in self-deception to make ourselves feel better about a loss of control, even though we are still left to deal with the consequences of making poor decisions.” –Michael Ken
Rationalization – In psychology and logic, rationalization or rationalisation (also known as making excuses) is a defense mechanism in which controversial behaviors or feelings are justified and explained in a seemingly rational or logical manner to avoid the true explanation, and are made consciously tolerable – or even admirable and superior – by plausible means.
You have decided to start a new diet and feel determined to lose some weight by exercising and regulating your diet. When you arrive at the office, it is a coworker’s birthday, and there are cookies, cupcakes, and soft drinks. To top it off, someone brought your favorite flavor of cheesecake from The Cheesecake Factory. Therein starts the internal dialogue of whether or not you should break from your diet.
There is a class coming up on one of your favorite subjects and being taught by your favorite celebrity teacher. Seating is limited, so they are only accepting a small number of applicants to attend the class. You submit your information and excitedly wait for a positive response, that is, until you find out you were not accepted to participate in the course. How do you handle this rejection?
Rationalization begins when something happens that creates an internal conflict, something referred to in psychology as Cognitive Dissonance. When we experience dissonance, it makes us feel uncomfortable, and we feel the need to do something to take away the discomfort.
Cognitive Dissonance – In psychology, cognitive dissonance is the mental stress or discomfort experienced by an individual who holds two or more contradictory beliefs, ideas, or values at the same time, performs an action that is contradictory to one or more beliefs, ideas or values, or is confronted by new information that conflicts with existing beliefs, ideas, or values. Source: Wikipedia
If we look at the two scenarios above, we can learn more about how rationalization occurs. The first example with the person on the diet demonstrates a type of internal mental struggle that ensues when we want to do something we are not supposed to do. In this case, we want to lose weight and have decided not to eat sweet foods. The cognitive dissonance triggers an internal dialogue that seeks to resolve the issue created by having access to junk food while being on a diet.
It usually sounds a little something like this:
“I am on a diet, and I am not going to eat any sweet foods this morning. I like cake, especially cheesecake, but it isn’t good for me. But, it IS someone’s birthday, and I shouldn’t be rude and refuse. My diet is important to me, but I should be considerate of other people’s feelings. The world doesn’t revolve around me. Cheesecake can be expensive, and the one the Cheesecake Factory makes is extra special. They hardly ever have that particular flavor available. I have the opportunity to get a piece for free, and how often do you get FREE cheesecake from The Cheesecake Factory? I didn’t eat breakfast this morning, and dinner was light last night, and so I’m already “ahead” on my diet. And I have to workout this afternoon, and it’s cardio work which will help me burn off the cheesecake. Everyone has a piece and well, hell, just this once I am going to do something nice for myself. Besides, somebody spent their hard earned money for this spread, and I don’t want to be rude.”
And, just like that, we break our diet.
In this type of rationalization, we present weak arguments of why it is okay, or at least tolerable, to do what we are not supposed to do. We then let those flimsy arguments win over our willpower by making excuses so we can feel more comfortable with our poor decisions.
The curious thing about these weak arguments is that if another person tried using these same arguments against us, we would never concede to them. They are just too half-baked and superficial. But, when we argue with ourselves and make those same weak arguments, we feel like they are pretty good ideas. Even though we planned on sticking to our diet, it is a pretty good bet that we are going to talk ourselves into having a slice of cheesecake.
The second scenario with the failed application to the class we wanted to attend presents us with an external source of discomfort. While adhering to a diet created an internal battle against ourselves, this example involves another entity outside of ourselves. In this case, whoever picked the applications to select who could attend the class would be the source of our dissonance.
To rationalize these kinds of situations, we present two different responses with what psychologists call the “sour grapes” and “sweet lemon” arguments. The sour grapes response occurs when we try to get something we want, like the class (grapes), but because our application was not accepted, then we are likely to rationalize that the grapes (class) were probably sour. We may rationalize that the class was not going to be very useful.
The sweet lemon response occurs when we take the rejection (the lemon) and tell ourselves it was a desirable outcome. For example, we see the rejection as something positive because there was a different event at the same time that would be better, or that the money you saved was a blessing that would allow you to do something more meaningful. Either way, we seem to search out a logical way to alleviate pain, rejection, and we use our intelligence to think of a way of saving face, even if the logic is not sound.
A Reward For Lying
Rationalizing disappointments or poor decisions not only involves saving face but also includes positive reinforcement in the form of a biological reward. Human beings are hardwired to seek immediate gratification, something our brain obliges in the form of dopamine, a chemical that provides a feeling of satisfaction and euphoria. While cognitive dissonance brings discomfort, the resolution of the conflict we feel earns us a type of reward. It is not making the best decision that triggers this reward, but the resolution of the cognitive dissonance. Of course, our actions always have consequences, and we often feel guilty after engaging in behavior that causes us to fall short of our goals, but in the present moment, it can be hard to override this evolutionary tendency.
Rationalization is a unique coping mechanism. It allows us to do what we want, even if that something runs contrary to what we are supposed to do and the goals we set for ourselves. It can also be a form of lying to ourselves to make us feel better, but in any case, it gives us a reason to opt out of the desired behavior regardless of the consequences. The momentary satisfaction just seems more real to us than some distant future outcome.
Lastly, it is interesting to note human intelligence does not provide a safeguard against practicing this unreasonable behavior and that it assists us in making better arguments to ourselves about why we should do what we want, even when it is not the right thing to do.
Write about an experience that triggered an internal conflict. What conversation took place in your head? How did your mind try to rationalize the situation? Did you make a good decision? Was there a negative consequence to be paid at a later time as a result of your decision?
Write about an experience of external conflict. What was your internal conversation? How did your mind try to rationalize the situation? Did you have any communication with the source of the conflict?
In general, when your mind is rationalizing external conflict, do you tend to use the “sour grapes” or “sweet lemon” argument? If you use both, can you see a pattern that triggers one or the other?
Make a list of ten weak arguments your mind has presented when trying to rationalize a decision.
Name a situation in history when a political leader had innocent people killed and then justified their actions as acceptable or necessary.
Name a situation in history when a person committed fraud or theft and rationalized their behavior as justifiable.
Why do we tend to favor short term over long term rewards?
Are you able to recognize when your mind is trying to rationalize a decision or experience?
What can you do to resist engaging in rationalization and to make better choices in life?