Rationalisation can be viewed as an imperfect defense mechanism.
This process essentially involves creating plausible but ultimately incorrect justifications for a certain action, emotion, or way of thinking. These can be voiced to others, but most of the time rationalisations are purely internal. Unless someone is particularly skilled at doublethink, the mind will probably not fully believe the rationalisation, but this is largely irrelevant. The purpose is to temporarily alleviate discomfort until it is forgotten or its source subsides. As an example:
- Action – Someone sits silently at a party
- Rationalisation – “No-one here interests me”
- Truth – They are too shy to make conversation
As long as the rationalisation is sufficiently convincing to stave off negative feelings from acknowledging the truth, that person will probably keep rationalising. It might even be true that no-one at the party interests the silent observer, but as long as this is not the reason behind that action, it constitutes a rationalisation. They are commonly – but subconsciously – invoked to regain feelings of:
… among other common psychological needs. In this case, the silent partygoer may have identified themselves as an introvert among extroverted friends, or put on a persona of a highly confident individual. In either case, reframing themselves as a merely uninterested extrovert could help protect their ego and justify their position in their friendship circle. There are many possible reasons for a rationalisation.
However, it is also entirely possible that this justification is legitimate, i.e. not a rationalisation at all:
- Action – Someone sits silently at a party
- Rationalisation – “No-one here interests me”
- Truth – They are genuinely bored of others’ company
An authentic introvert (or sociopath, for that matter) might actually fail to speak at a party because they find the other partygoers painfully dull and want to leave. Because rationalisations consist of intellectually plausible justifications, these justifications will actually be valid for some people in some situations.
In fact, since people are reasonably complex, a justification may be true for an individual only some of the time, while at other times it forms a rationalisation. The introvert in question may be silent at some parties due to boredom, but silent at other parties due to painful shyness. This leads to our first question – “how can you determine if you are rationalising?”
One method is to simply ask yourself. Unless you are remarkably skilled at self-deception, something about a rationalisation will always feel ‘off’, which can be illuminated by asking yourself if you’re definitely being honest. Some will even physically feel it in the gut or heart (though this is just mental trickery, as far as I’m aware).
You could compare the thoughts you are experiencing to the thoughts you would expect to have if your feeling was genuine. Almost by definition, there will be some disparity between your thoughts and the thoughts that would flow naturally from your justifications; otherwise they would be legitimate.
For example, we might expect our genuinely bored introvert at a party to think of reading a book at home, going for a walk, or otherwise perform solitary activities.* If this silent observer is instead thinking constantly about the others at the party or even about talking to them, it’s quite likely they actually do wish they were more extroverted but are rationalising away an inability or unwillingness to start conversations.
Similarly, it’s often possible to identify emotions that should be present if your justifications are correct, and look for their presence or absence. This isn’t a perfect method (humans are complex and sometimes their emotions do not seem to flow naturally from their current beliefs and situation even without rationalisation) but it’s often good enough to identify your rationalisations.
For example, the silent observer might expect themselves to be irritated (by others at the party), glad (to be left out of boring conversation), or otherwise feel a certain emotion. After self-analysis, they realise they actually feel unhappy and left out, which they cannot reconcile with their justification, and conclude they must be rationalising.
You can also look for ‘tells‘, including:
- Hesitance when expressing your justification to others, indicating a lie
- Fidgeting, restlessness, or other signs of discomfort
- Repetitive avoidance behaviour (such as going to the bathroom constantly to disguise the fact you’ve been sitting in the corner for three hours)
These strategies should be sufficient to tell if something is off. Notice that analysing a genuine feeling will often prompt indifference, while analysing a rationalisation often spurs a flurry of intellectual or emotional activity to back up the original justification. Watch how you think and how desperate you are to keep that justification in place.
Most people do not like to determine if they are rationalising (and will even lash back at those who suggest it) because it makes you feel dishonest and unintelligent. I have not been able to negate this feeling fully, but it passes quickly enough when you reframe rationalisation as human nature. Your subconscious is simply trying to protect your ego with a ‘little white lie’. We should not expect our instincts to be perfect when so many human triumphs (e.g. civilization itself) rely on taming them.
Now we can identify our rationalisations, we should ask ourselves how this knowledge can be used to our advantage. A number of obvious possibilities present themselves:
- Remedy – Stop rationalising and start behaving ‘properly’ (e.g. start talking!)
- Cease – Simply stop rationalising but continue your prior behaviour
- Ignore – Keep on rationalising or even make the justification ‘stronger’
It may sound as though the last two options are ridiculous and contrary to the spirit of personal development. In reality, there is no straightforward answer to this problem; the solution should depend on the context. The following contexts would be legitimate justifications for pursuing each strategy:
- Remedy – You have been rationalising away a lack of progress towards a specific goal (e.g. social skills) which will persist. Eventually, you will need to quit rationalising and start acting, and it may as well be now.
- Cease – You want to stop rationalising so you can work towards this goal, but also believe it would be best for you to take it in small steps (e.g. you are terrified of parties). It’s a significant enough step for you to be honest with yourself right now, so stick with it as a safe way to make progress.
- Ignore – This rationalisation isn’t hindering any particular goal of yours (e.g. you don’t care about fitting in), and it’s sheltering you from a minor annoyance that would take more energy to overcome than it’s worth (e.g. you don’t often go to parties). You want to just ride out this situation so you can better exert your efforts elsewhere.
There are doubtless other strategies with equally legitimate justifications. The point is that rationalisation is a classic example of a knowledge problem; once you identify your rationalisation and its context, you can make better choices about whether to abandon or maintain it.
Evaluate the success of your chosen strategy (it is always easier to be honest with yourself after the situation has passed!) each time; if you have spare time, you might even break down the causal chain (events, thoughts, etc.) that caused you to begin rationalising, so it becomes easier to spot next time. This kind of metacognition will improve your decision making over time and likely reduce the frequency of your rationalisations – sometimes it may seem almost as though your mind has stopped bothering trying to fool you.
Finally, do your very best to avoid meta-rationalisation. By this, I mean rationalising away why you were rationalising in the first place (such as “I was only rationalising to distract myself from this mild, temporary inconvenience” when the reality is you’ve been avoiding proactive behaviour for weeks). Once you catch yourself rationalising, do your best to be 100% honest with yourself while you analyse the primary rationalisation. This will be easier than catching the initial rationalisation, since you are now extremely conscious of your prior mental dishonesty.
It might be uncomfortable, but:
- It will likely be no more unpleasant than the lingering emotions you are trying to ignore
- The process of analysis will restore feelings of control and freedom over your behaviour
- It should lead to better outcomes that will improve your confidence in the long run
Most people interested in personal development will have already previously identified past rationalisations of theirs which sought to avoid or delay solving the problem. (Perhaps you didn’t want to admit that you lacked confidence?) Hopefully, you have had enough success with self-improvement by now to recognise that catching this rationalisation was – or will be – invaluable to improving your life and happiness. Apply that philosophy consciously and vigorously and you will go far.
In summary, rationalisation isn’t inherently bad. It can be a hindrance to your goals, and it can be a useful shelter from negative emotion. Don’t seek to stamp it out entirely or shame yourself for dishonesty. Instead, simply seek to identify when you are rationalising and then make the most objective analysis you can of its utility. If it is useful to you (in the grand scheme of your personal development), it is perfectly acceptable to keep on rationalising. If not, muster the courage to discard the false justifications and pursue a better course of action.
* Obviously not all introverts would feel this way – this is an example that might fit that specific person.