Rationality Versus Rationalization

There’s something satisfying about carefully reasoning one’s way to a conclusion. To set aside one’s preconceived notions, decide on a new course of action, and to achieve reasoned confidence that one is doing the right thing.

Unfortunately, this sort of reasoning is the exception rather than the rule. It’s not that we don’t give reasons for our opinions or conclusions, but that we’re giving reasons to support an opinion that we didn’t reason ourselves into in the first place.

Have you ever found yourself in a park or a fast food court, and produced reasons to justify not picking up someone else’s trash?

I know that I have. I might think to myself, “I’m not going to pick up this because there are people who are paid to remove this trash, and I would be taking away their livelihood.” Or, I might say to myself, “This trash could have nasty germs on it, and it’s not worth getting sick just to clean up this bit of trash.” Or, “What difference will one more piece of trash make?”

If you think about such situations carefully, you’ll notice that you weren’t truly undecided about your course of action before you started giving reasons. Your inclination was to not pick up the trash. You had effectively made your decision already, and you were simply searching for reasons why leaving the trash on the table was the best course of action. You didn’t start from a position of complete indifference, and then reason yourself into not picking up the trash. Instead, you narrated your prior, subconscious disposition to leave the trash where it was. You gave an excuse for your disposition, and probably a pretty weak excuse at that. This narration and excuse-giving is called rationalization.

Rationalization is a normal human behavior. It’s the natural way our brains work most of the time. Rationalization is what happens when our logical faculties rubber-stamp the decisions of our intuitive faculties. Rationalization is not harmful when our intuitions are on target. However, we can get ourselves into trouble when our rationalization rubber-stamps a faulty intuition.

Avoiding Rationalization

We can overcome this tendency, and gain some control and insight over our decisions. Simply anticipating rationalization can go a long way towards defending against it.

When can you anticipate rationalization?

Suppose you find yourself in a debate about politics, and your opponent cites an economic study that appears to weaken your own position. You will naturally feel compelled to debate on their terms, and seek out economic studies or research that supports your own view. While there’s no harm in becoming better informed, or in correcting misinformation, you should ask yourself, “If the economic research goes in my opponent’s favor, would I change my policy position? And should I?”

If your primary concern is fairness or freedom, then becoming embroiled in a fierce debate about economic consequences is probably going to cause you to rationalize on behalf of your primary concern. You will feel a compulsion to cook up or cherry-pick economic facts to support a decision that wasn’t economic in the first place.

We can gain advantage from an honest assessment of our motivations, including a better understanding of our adversaries. When we think that we hold all of the rational high ground, and that the dispute is primarily a about facts and reasoning, we tend to pursue a take-no-prisoners approach. We must win every argument, and we must find ways to impose our will on the other party, even if by force. But when we reduce a problem down to motivations, it becomes easier to find common ground, or, at least, to pursue a strategy of coexistence. We become more flexible because we can appreciate that, even if all the facts were agreed upon, there would still be differences of opinion. We can agree that some compromise might have value merely because it satisfies the feelings and motivations of the other party. A policy that acknowledges the concerns of the other side may attract more support support and be more successful in the long run.

A clear view of the basis for our conclusions can also change our intuitions. It can make us more willing to work on our values. You see, rationalization cloaks our decisions in bogus logical arguments. It makes every conclusion seem like an inevitable conclusion from cold, value-less facts. It makes it seem as if our values are irrelevant. But when we tear away the cloak of false logic, we expose our personal values as the key motivators in most of our decision-making. Once we separate out the inflexible facts, and come face to face with our values, we might be inclined to solve our problems by working our values a little bit.