Defense Mechanisms

Self-Deception Part 4: Rationalization

The fourth installment in a new 10-part series on ego defenses.

Posted Feb 02, 2019

Source: Pixabay

In this new series on self-deception, I will spotlight 10 of the most important ego defenses. After looking at denialrepression, and dissociation, it is now time for rationalization.

Rationalization is the use of feeble or far-fetched arguments to skirt over something that is difficult to accept or else make it seem more palatable.

A person who has been rejected by a love interest convinces herself that he rejected her because he did not feel up to her standards, and, what’s more, that the rejection is a blessing in disguise in that it has freed her to find a more suitable partner. The first rationalization (that her love interest rejected her because he did not feel up to her standards) is a case of skirting over something that is difficult to accept, sometimes called ‘sour grapes’. The second rationalization (that the rejection has freed her to find a more suitable partner) is a case of making it seem more palatable, also called ‘sweet lemons’.

Here’s another example. A teenager who fails to secure a place at a leading university tells herself that the university is sexist (sour grapes), and that taking a gap year to re-apply is a precious opportunity to travel and see the world (sweet lemons). The teenager uses these rationalizations to reduce the psychological discomfort of holding contradictory beliefs or thoughts (‘cognitions’), on the one hand the cognition that she is smart and prepared enough to get into the university, and on the other hand the cognition that she failed to do so. She could also have reduced this so-called ‘cognitive dissonance’ by revising her self-image (“I am perhaps not so smart or prepared as I thought”) but finds it less challenging to rationalize, that is, to undermine or discount, the inconsistent cognition of her rejection by the university.

A striking instance of cognitive dissonance and rationalization is to be found in Leon Festinger’s book of 1956, When Prophecy Fails, in which he discusses his experience of infiltrating a UFO doomsday cult whose leader had prophesied the end of the world. When the end of the world predictably failed to materialize, most of the cult members dealt with the dissonance that arose from the cognitions ‘the leader prophesied the end of the world’ and ‘the world did not end’ not by abandoning the cult or its leader but by introducing the rationalization that the world had been saved by the strength of their faith!

Smokers typically experience a high level of cognitive dissonance with respect to their habit. To decrease this tension, they might (1) quit smoking, or (2) deny the evidence that links smoking to life-threatening conditions such as emphysema and lung cancer, or (3) rationalize their smoking so as to make it compatible with competing cognitions such as ‘I want to live a long and healthy life’ or ‘I am a reasonable person who makes good decisions’. 

They might, therefore, tell themselves things like:

  • "Smoking is my only way of coping.”
  • “There’s nothing else to do.”
  • “What’s the point of living if I can’t enjoy life.”
  • “Only heavy smokers are at any real risk.”
  • “That’s fine, everyone has to die someday.”
  • “Everyone has to die from something, so it might as well be this.”

The first three rationalizations are instances of sour grapes, and the last three of sweet lemons.

For the story, ‘sour grapes’ derives from one of the fables attributed to Aesop, The Fox and the Grapes.

One hot summer’s day a Fox was strolling through an orchard till he came to a bunch of Grapes just ripening on a vine which had been trained over a lofty branch. “Just the thing to quench my thirst,” quoth he. Drawing back a few paces, he took a run and a jump, and just missed the branch. Turning round with a One, Two, Three, he jumped up, but with no greater success. Again and again he tried after the tempting morsel, but at last had to give it up, and walked away with his nose in the air, saying: “I am sure they are sour.”

In the case of Aesop’s fox, the cognitive dissonance arises from the cognitions ‘I am an agile and nimble fox’ and ‘I can’t reach the grapes on the branch’; and the rationalization—which is, of course, a form of sour grapes—is “I am sure the grapes are sour”. Had the fox chosen to use sweet lemons instead of sour grapes, he might have said something like, “In any case, there are far juicier grapes in the farmer’s orchard.”

Rationalization is used to great comedic effect in Candide, Voltaire’s satirical masterpiece. The novella is an attack on Leibniz’s philosophy that the world is the best of all possible worlds, as represented by Candide’s old tutor Professor Pangloss, who stubbornly rationalizes a succession of tragic events so that they are in keeping with Leibniz’s optimism. In Chapter 4, Candide chances upon Pangloss in the form of a beggar. Pangloss, it turns out, has contracted a venereal disease, and is covered in scabs and coughing violently. Upon seeing his old tutor in so reduced a state, Candide ‘inquires into the cause and effect, as well as into the sufficing reason that had reduced [Pangloss] to so miserable a condition’.

As I argue in my new book, Hide and Seek: The Psychology of Self-Deception, human beings are not rational, but rationalizing animals. They find it frightening to think and painful to change because thought and change threaten the beliefs that make up their sense of self. Given this state of affairs, any tectonic shift in a person’s outlook, any major realignment with the truth, is only ever going to occur incrementally and over a long period of time. A frequent impetus is, in fact, a deterioration in the person’s life circumstances, so severe that it overwhelms her ego defenses and leaves her in the depressive or undefended position. 

In the words of Marcel Proust, ‘Happiness is good for the body, but it is grief which develops the strengths of the mind.’

If you have any examples of rationalization, real or fictional, that you would like to share, please do so in the comments section.

In the fifth installment in this series, I will be discussing the ego defense of displacement.