What's The Difference Between Rationality And Rationalizing?

A complicated issue at the heart of a whole lot of debate and argument

Posted Nov 19, 2015

Rationalize, moralize, romanticize, idealize--apparently "ize" at the end of a word turns something we like into something we don't like or at least find dubious.

What, for example, is the difference between being rational and rationalizing? The "ize" turns the adjective "rational" into a verb suggesting deliberate effort, contrivance and artifice. Rationalizing is actively putting a rational gloss on our irrational behavior.

How can we tell when someone is rationalizing instead of just being rational? There's no perfectly reliable formula though we sometimes act like there is, as when we say, "They're rationalizing" instead of "I bet that they're rationalizing." When we say, "They're rationalizing" we act like we're stating an objective fact, just calling a spade a spade, as though we know for sure.

One rule we rely upon is that if the rational explanation comes after the behavior ("Um, yeah, no I meant to do that because...") then it's rationalizing, which is funny. It implies the false assumption that all human behavior is consciously motivated.

If there's one thing psychologists have discovered, it's that the majority of human behavior is unconsciously motivated, the product of habit or intuition, not prior deliberation.

Plenty of that unconscious behavior is perfectly fine, what psychologists call “heuristic behavior,” meaning following from some rule of thumb, some general habit of thought and behavior. “Heuristic” comes from "Eureka!" which means something like “aha!” most famously shouted by Archimedes as he ran naked through the streets after he had stepped into a bath and noticed that the water level rose. Reasoning rationally, he suddenly understood that the volume of water displaced must be equal to the volume of the part of his body he had submerged, a reliable rule of thumb that we have since turned into a heuristic, an unconscious habit of thought.

That’s what minds do. They’re not computers but computer generators. Any behavior we can put reliably on autopilot we do. That’s a deeply rational thing to do, in that it frees our minds to concentrate on what remains uncertain, what can’t be put on autopilot.

If someone asked you why you thought some submersed object had the same volume as the water it displaced, you would have to think about it a moment. After the fact, you would remember the heuristic. Is that rationalizing? If rationalizing means coming up with a reason after the fact, then yes; if it means coming up with a lame excuse that doesn’t hold water, then no.

Psychologists distinguish between heuristics and biases. Biases are also rules of thumb, but ones that don’t prove reliably rational. They’re our bad intuitions, assumptions or rules of thumb, which is also funny.

Bias originally meant slanted, not running in a straight or parallel line. The implication is that being rational is moving ourselves in a straight line consistent with the one true reasonable way to think. When we say, “They’re just biased,” we mean that they’re skewed off form that one true rational and reasonable way to think, which we assume is our way of thinking.

We’re all biased not just because the psychologically-defined biases are universal, but because we don’t all prioritize the same way. We assign different value to different things based on our personal circumstances. If you’re chronically hungry, food is going to be of more value; if you’re chronically poor, money is going to be of more value. In political science they say, “Where you stand depends on where you sit.” 

It turns out there isn’t one true straight-line for rationality. “Rational” comes from ratio, in other words relative value, this worth more than that. Things have different relative value for each of us. Broadly defined, all choices are rational, comparisons of relative worth, which are different for different people in different circumstances.

One odd take-away is that to accuse someone of rationalizing is to make a moral accusation, which is often a kind of moralizing. Moralizing, I can accuse someone of immorally rationalizing when I’m simply pretending my bias is a moral formula for thinking straight. 

The upshot of all of this is another “-ize,” nicely introduced in the tune You’ve got to funkifize by Tower of Power. Funk originally meant dirt, mess, imperfection. Pop music turned it into a virtue, embracing the mess of a driving deep yet still messy dirty groove. To funkifize means to deliberately embrace the mess.

The song’s line, “If you want to get funky like a bowleg monkey…” exemplifies this approach, because that’s what we are, confused, conflicted primates, bent or biased (bowlegged) by our preferences, including our rationalizing preference for thinking that we’re the ones who are thinking straight and rationally. In other words we romanticize our biases.