Rationalization is a defense mechanism from which no one escapes. When life goes wrong and puts us on the ropes, it can overflow our mental resources, so we are not able to adaptively face reality. When we live in situations that are particularly threatening to our “self”, we tend to protect ourselves to maintain a certain mental balance that allows us to move forward with the least possible damage to our ego. Rationalization is probably the most widespread defense mechanism.
What is rationalization in Psychology?
The concept of rationalization dates back to the psychoanalyst Ernest Jones. In 1908 he proposed the first definition of rationalization: “The invention of a reason to explain an attitude or action whose motive is not recognized.” Sigmund Freud quickly adopted the concept of rationalization to make sense of the explanations offered by his patients for their neurotic symptoms.
Basically, rationalization is a form of denial that allows us to avoid conflict and the frustration that it generates. How do we do it? We look for reasons – apparently logical – to justify or cover up errors, weaknesses or contradictions that we do not want to accept or with which we do not know how to deal.
In practice, rationalization is a rejection mechanism that allows us to deal with emotional conflicts or internal or external stressful situations by inventing reassuring but incorrect explanations for our own or others’ thoughts, actions or feelings in order to cover up the true motives.
The mechanism of rationalization, trapped by what we do not want to recognize
In a general sense, we resort to rationalization to try to explain and justify in an apparently rational or logical way our behaviors or what has happened to us, so that those facts become tolerable or even positive.
Rationalization occurs in two phases. At first we make a decision or implement a motivated behavior for a certain reason. In a second moment we construct another reason, covered with an apparent logic and coherence, to justify our decision or behavior, either towards ourselves or towards others.
It is worth noting that rationalization does not imply lying – at least in the strictest sense of the term – since many times we end up really believing the reasons that have been constructed. The mechanism of rationalization runs through twists and turns that are far from our consciousness; that is, we do not consciously deceive ourselves or others.
In fact, when a psychologist tries to unmask these reasons, it is common for the person to deny them because he or she is convinced that his or her motives are valid. We cannot forget that rationalization is based on an explanation that, although false, is plausible. As the arguments that we offer ourselves are perfectly rational, they manage to convince us and thus we do not need to recognize our incapacity, error, limitations or imperfections.
Rationalization acts as a dissociation mechanism. Without realizing it, we establish a distance between the “good” and the “bad”, awarding ourselves the “good” and rejecting the “bad”, to eliminate the source of insecurity, danger or emotional tension that we do not want to recognize. In this way we manage to “adapt” to the environment, even if we do not truly resolve our conflicts. We save our ego in the short term, but we don’t protect it in the long term.
Neuroscientists from the University of California found that the rationalization mechanism can be activated quickly when we have to make difficult decisions or we are faced with ambivalent conflicts, without prolonged deliberation, simply as a by-product of the decision-making process to alleviate anxiety, psychological discomfort or cognitive dissonance brought about by the decision-making process itself.
Therefore, we are not always aware that we are rationalizing. However, this denial will be more or less intense and lasting depending on how we perceive reality as more or less threatening to our “self”.
Examples of rationalization as a defense mechanism on a day-to-day basis
Rationalization is a defense mechanism that we can use without realizing it in our day to day life. Perhaps the oldest example of rationalization comes from Aesop’s story “The Fox and the Grapes.”
In this tale, the fox sees some grapes and tries to reach them. However, after several unsuccessful attempts it realizes that they are too high. It then despises them saying: “They are not ripe!”.
In real life we behave like the fox in the story without realizing it. In fact, rationalization fulfills different psychological functions:
• Avoid disappointment. We can resort to rationalization to avoid being disappointed in our performances and protect the positive image we have of ourselves. For example, if a job interview went bad, we can lie to ourselves by telling ourselves that we didn’t really want that job.
• Failure to recognize limitations. Rationalization saves us from having to acknowledge some of our limitations, especially those that are uncomfortable for us. If we go to a party, we can say that we do not dance because we do not want to sweat, when the truth is that we are ashamed to dance.
• Escape from guilt. We tend to put into practice the rationalization mechanism to hide our mistakes and block the guilt trip. We can tell ourselves that the problem we are concerned about was going to happen anyway or think that the project was doomed from the start.
• Avoid introspection. Rationalization is also a strategy for not digging inside ourselves, usually out of fear of what we might find. For example, we can explain our bad mood or rude behavior by the stress that we suffer in a traffic jam when, in reality, it could hide a latent conflict with that person.
• Not recognizing reality. When reality overwhelms our coping resources, we turn to rationalization as a defense mechanism to protect ourselves. A person in an abusive relationship, for example, may think that it is his or her fault for not acknowledging that his or her partner is a violent person or does not love him or her.
When does rationalizing become a problem?
Rationalization can be adaptive as it protects us from emotions and motivations that we would not be able to manage at that time. We can all put into practice the odd defense mechanism without our behavior being considered pathological. What really makes rationalization problematic is the rigidity with which it manifests itself and its prolonged extension over time.
In fact, Kristin Laurin, a psychologist at the University of Waterloo, has carried out a series of interesting experiments in which she shows that we often resort to rationalization when we believe that the facts are not going backwards. In practice, it is a kind of surrender because we assume that there is no point in continuing to fight.
In one of the experiments, participants read that lowering speed limits in cities would make people safer and that rulers had decided to lower them. Some of those people were told that the legislation would go into effect, but others were told that there was a possibility that the law would be rejected.
Those who believed that the speed limit would be lowered showed greater support for the change and looked for logical reasons to accept those new measures, compared to people who thought there was a possibility that it would not happen. That means that rationalization can help us deal with a reality that we cannot change.
However, the risks of using rationalization as a habitual coping mechanism usually far outweigh the specific benefits that it could bring us:
• We hide our emotions. Suppressing our emotions can have devastating long-term effects. Emotions are there to signal us a conflict that we must resolve. Ignoring them does not usually solve the problem, but it is likely that they end up becoming encrusted, doing us more harm and perpetuating the maladaptive situation that generates them.
• We refuse to recognize our shadows. When we put rationalization into practice as a defense mechanism, we can feel good because we protect our self-image, but in the long run, not recognizing our weaknesses, mistakes or imperfections will prevent us from growing as people. We can only improve when we see ourselves realistically and are aware of the qualities that we need to strengthen or perfect.
• We move away from reality. Although the reasons we seek may be plausible, if they are not true because they are based on faulty logic, their long-term results can be very negative. Rationalization is not usually adaptive since it takes us further away from reality, in a way that prevents us from accepting it and working to change it, serving only to extend an unsatisfactory state.
The keys to stop using rationalization as a defense mechanism
When we lie to ourselves, we not only ignore our feelings and motives, but we also hide valuable information from ourselves. Without that information, it is difficult to make good decisions. It’s like we’re walking through life blind. On the other hand, if we are able to appreciate the complete image in a clear, reasonable and detached way, no matter how hard it may be, we will be able to assess what is the best strategy to follow, the one that does us less harm and that, in the long run, gives us more benefits.
That is why it is important to learn to recognize our emotions, impulses and motivations. About that, there is a question that can take us very far: “why?” When something bothers us or makes us uncomfortable, we simply have to ask ourselves “why?”
It is important not to stay with the first explanation that comes to our mind because it is likely to be a rationalization, especially if it is a situation that troubles us. We must continue investigating our motives, asking ourselves why until we reach that explanation that generates an intense emotional resonance. This introspection process will pay off and help us get to know ourselves better and accept ourselves as we are, so that we need to resort less to rationalization.
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Laurin, K. (2018) Inaugurating Rationalization: Three Field Studies Find Increased Rationalization When Anticipated Realities Become Current. Psychol Sci; 29(4): 483-495.
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Laurin, K. et. Al. (2012) Reactance Versus Rationalization: Divergent Responses to Policies That Constrain Freedom. Psychol Sci; 23(2): 205-209.
Jarcho, J. M. et. Al. (2011) The neural basis of rationalization: cognitive dissonance reduction during decision-making. Soc Cogn Affect Neurosci; 6(4): 460–467.