Rationalization: What It Is and How to Stop It

One of the most fascinating things in the world is how impressively good people are at lying to themselves.

Humans are masters of rationalization (myself most certainly included).

“It’s ok to eat that whole cake–I walked on the treadmill for 15 minutes this morning.”
“It’s ok to spend money I don’t have–I should be getting a bonus soon.”
“It’s ok to buy the latest, greatest whatever–my current one is going to die soon anyway.”

turned-back

Some of these lies are worse than others. But we rarely admit to ourselves that we’re lying. We turn our backs on truth and logic. Instead of facing truth or guilt head on, we rationalize.

What is Rationalization?

Here’s a definition snagged from everyone’s favorite encyclopedia, Wikipedia. In parenthesis on the page next to rationalization it actually says “making excuses.” That’s awfully clear. But here’s a fuller definition:

Rationalization is…a 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.

Essentially, it’s forcing illogical things into a logical box. We twist and turn, prod and poke until something that was once irrational becomes not just acceptable but perhaps even admirable in our own minds. 

How Rationalization Occurs

Here’s a totally hypothetically example of how rationalization occurs, from realization to rationalization.

1. REALIZATION: My cell phone is old.

2. IPSO FACTO: My cell phone is bad (because old = bad, slow, not impressive)

3. IMPLICATION: I need a new phone.

4. UNDISPUTED FACT: The iPhone is the best phone money can buy.

5. GOOD REALIZATION: I need money to buy an iPhone. I can get money from working.

6. SELF TALK: I work hard and I have money. My hard earned money can buy an iPhone.

7. RATIONALIZATION PROCESS COMMENCES: If I have an iPhone I could call my parents more frequently (and send them clearer pictures of my dog / kids / work / adventures)

8. HALF TRUTH: My parents would love to hear from me more often (truth), and my old phone keeps me from staying in touch (lie).

9. GOOD INTENTION: I love my parents and want to do a better job of communicating with them.

10. RATIONALIZATION SEQUENCE COMPLETE: I’ll get a new iPhone because I love my parents.

The 10-step process above happens largely at a subconscious level, and it’s a nasty cocktail of truth, half-truths, lies, good intentions, and ultimately giving ourselves exactly what we want, no matter the cost.

What started as a realization of something we have that makes us unhappy is transfigured into a justification for getting something we want that we think would make us happier, with a giant Noble Rational bow on top.

Projecting Your Rationalization Onto Others

The sad reality isn’t just that we rationalize to appease our selves, but to prove to others our logic is sound.

I’ve had many conversations with others, normally in the realm of justifying technology. They usually play out like this.

ME: Oh, did you get the new iPhone?

THEM: Oh…(slightly uncomfortable) yeah. Verizon had a super good deal where I could trade in my old phone and it was only like $100.

ME: Neat!

THEM: (Feeling uncomfortable with me just saying neat). Yeah and my old phone was a real piece.

ME: Oh?

THEM: Yeah, I could barely dial on it and the battery was no good and I had bad reception and in an emergency there was NO WAY a 9-1-1 operator could have ever heard what I was saying. I mean what if I saw an accident and cars were on fire and kids were in the back seat…just think about the kids…

ME: (Nodding)

THEM: And really, I just wanted to do a better job staying in touch with my parents and the camera on my old phone was SO LAME and my dad never said this but I think he hated my blurry Snapchat selfies because they were so grainy and stuff…

ME: (Still nodding)

THEM: (still rationalizing)….and all the neat free apps and….with my family….my girlfriend has….so yeah at the end of the day it would have pretty much been stupid not to buy it.

ME: Totally.

I’ll be honest, you could switch the ME and THEM in the above dialogue and things would play out exactly the same way.

At the root of rationalization we find guilt. Guilt is the primary motivator in forcing us to make excuses for why we do what we do.

We feel guilty for not giving the money to charity. Guilty for putting it on a credit card. Guilty for thinking that having a new whatever would make us happier than being stuck with an old whatever or no whatever at all.

This doesn’t just occur in the realm of how we spend our money, but also how we spend our time, why we make unwise decisions and why we just do foolish things in general.

How Do We Combat Rationalization?

Jeremiah 17:9 says:

The heart is deceitful above all things,
and desperately sick;
who can understand it?

Our heart can help our mind rationalize anything we want. That’s a deadly superpower.

Now that we know, how do we make it stop?

1. Check your heart.

Ask yourself, why do I want this thing (toy, person, relationship, vacation, job, etc.)?

Do I think it will make me happier?

Will I try to find unending joy in something that won’t complete me?

2. Find the guilt.

We don’t have to rationalize something if we don’t feel guilty about it.

Find out why you feel guilty.

If you’re rationalizing an affair you should feel guilty. There is no getting around that. Whatever it is, figure out why you feel uncomfortable.

3. Seek wise counsel.

Talk to wise people in your life that would be able to see your self-rationalized smokescreen of deception. Tell them what you’re considering doing, and let them ask questions. Don’t feed them the lies you’ve already fed yourself. Simply say, “I’m considering doing / buying / going to / X. What do you think?”

If they are truly wise, they will start by asking you questions. That will give you an opportunity to answer and get to the core of why you’re doing what you’re doing.

4. Be honest with yourself.

It’s ok to want things. But realizing many things are wants and not needs is critical. It’s not bad to want an iPhone. It’s bad to justify wanting an iPhone with seemingly praiseworthy intentions.

Be honest. Make a good, wise decision. Use whatever you buy or do for the good of others as well, and don’t over-rationalize or over-spiritualize what you’re doing.

In combatting rationalization, true honesty is the best policy.

Question: How do you rationalize decisions you make? How do you combat it?

Image provided by gratisography

Like what you read on my blog? Subscribe now and get it hand delivered to your inbox. If you're into RSS, here's the feed link.

Jordan Shirkman

Exploring the intersection of theology, technology and methodology as a disciple of Jesus and lover of learning.

2 thoughts on “Rationalization: What It Is and How to Stop It

  1. Love this! Such a convicting reminder of how quick I am to rationalize my wants/feelings/etc. to make it all seem ok. Thanks for pointing me back to truth and realizing it’s not about comparing myself and my desires to what others are doing, but really checking my heart.

Comments are closed.