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Self-Deception I: Rationalization

Human beings are not rational, but rationalizing animals.

[Post updated on May 4, 2020.]

In this new series, I shall be examining some of the most important methods of self-deception, starting today with the ego defence of rationalization.

Rationalization is the use of feeble but seemingly plausible arguments either to justify something that is difficult to accept or to make it seem ‘not so bad after all.'

A person who has been rejected by a love interest convinces herself that he rejected her because he did not share in her ideal of happiness, 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 they did not share in the same ideal of happiness) is a case of justifying 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 ‘not so bad after all,' also called ‘sweet lemons.'

Here's another example. A teenager who fails to get a place at a top university tells herself that one of the interviewers on the interview panel was sexist (sour grapes), and that taking a gap year to re-apply is going to give her 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 intelligent enough to get into the top university, and on the other hand the cognition that she failed to do so. She could have reduced this so-called ‘cognitive dissonance' by adapting her self-image (‘I am perhaps not so intelligent as I thought'), but finds it less challenging to undermine, that is, to rationalize, the inconsistent cognition of her rejection by the top university.

A striking instance of cognitive dissonance and rationalization can be found in Leon Festinger's book of 1956, When Prophecy Fails, in which he discusses his experience of infiltrating a UFO doomsday cult the leader of which had recently prophesized the end of the world. When the end of the world failed to materialize, most of the cult's members dealt with the cognitive dissonance that arose from the cognitions ‘the leader prophesized that the world is going to end' and ‘the world did not end' not by abandoning the cult or its leader, as might be expected, 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 smoking. To decrease this tension, they might quit cigarettes, or deny the evidence that links smoking to life-threatening conditions such as ephysema and lung cancer, or rationalize their smoking so as to make it compatible with competing cognitions such as ‘I want to live a long and healthy life' and ‘I am a reasonable person who makes good decisions'. For example, they might tell themselves that smoking is their only way of coping, that there is nothing else to do, that there is no point in living if life cannot be enjoyed, that only heavy smokers are at risk of emphysema and lung cancer, that everyone must die from something or other, or that everyone must die some day. The first three are instances of sour grapes, 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 bine 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 their 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 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 comic effect in Candide: Or, Optimism, the satirical masterpiece of the 18th century Enlightenment thinker Voltaire. The novella is an attack on Leibniz's philosophy that our world is the best of all possible worlds, a philosophy that is very much taken to heart by Candide's old tutor Professor Pangloss, who stubbornly persists in rationalizing a succession of tragic events to keep them in line with this being the best of all possible worlds. In Chapter 4, Candide chances upon Pangloss in the form of a beggar who, having contracted the venereal disease of syphilis, is covered in scabs and coughing violently. Upon discovering Pangloss in such a debased condition, Candide ‘inquires into the cause and effect, as well as into the sufficing reason that had reduced [him] to so miserable a condition'.

P: Alas ... it was love; love, the comfort of the human species; love, the preserver of the universe; the soul of all sensible beings; love! tender love!
C: Alas ... I have had some knowledge of love myself, this sovereign of hearts, this soul of souls; yet it never cost me more than a kiss and twenty kicks on the backside. But how could this beautiful cause produce in you so hideous an effect? (...)
P: Oh my dear Candide, you must remember Pacquette, that pretty wench, who waited on our noble Baroness; in her arms I tasted the pleasures of Paradise, which produced these Hell torments with which you see me devoured. She was infected with an ailment, and perhaps has since died of it; she received this present of a learned Franciscan, who derived it from the fountainhead; he was indebted for it to an old countess, who had it of a captain of horse, who had it of a marchioness, who had it of a page, the page had it of a Jesuit, who, during his novitiate, had it in a direct line from one of the fellow adventurers of Christopher Columbus...
C: O sage Pangloss ... what a strange genealogy is this! Is not the devil the root of it?
P: Not at all ... it was a thing unavoidable, a necessary ingredient in the best of worlds; for if Columbus had not caught in an island in America this disease, which contaminates the source of generation, and frequently impedes propagation itself, and is evidently opposed to the great end of nature, we should have had neither chocolate nor cochineal...

Rationalization ought to be distinguished from another ego defence called intellectualization, by which the uncomfortable feelings associated with a problem are kept out of consciousness by thinking about the problem in cold, abstract, and esoteric terms.

Here's an example. An ambitious medical student once asked me whether she ought to take up a career in academic medicine, despite (or so it seemed) having already made up her mind on the matter. After raising some arguments in favor, I raised some arguments against, including that the vast majority of people engaged in medical research never go on to make a significant breakthrough. As she did not seem to be taking this argument on board, I asked her to name just one major breakthrough in psychiatric research in the past fifty years. Instead of naming a major breakthrough, or accepting that there had not been any, she resorted to questioning the definition of a breakthrough and even the value of making one—which may have been legitimate things to do, had she first accepted that there had not been any.

Here’s a second example of intellectualization. After being discharged from hospital, a middle-aged man who had almost died from a heart attack spent several hours a day on his computer researching the various risk factors of cardiovascular disease. He typed out long essays on each of these risk factors, printed them out, and filed them in a large binder with colour-coded dividers. After that, he became preoccupied with the vitamin and mineral contents in various kinds of food and devised a strict dietary regimen to ensure that he took in the recommended amounts of each and every micronutrient. Despite living on a shoestring budget, he spent a great deal of money on a high-end steamer on the basis that it could preserve vitamins through the cooking process. But not once did he consider cutting back on his much more harmful smoking habit...

Human beings are not rational, but rationalizing animals. If they find it frightening to think and painful to change, this is in large part because thinking and changing represent major threats to the beliefs that make up their sense of self. Given this state of affairs, any tectonic shift in a person's outlook is only ever going to occur incrementally and over a long period of time. Moreover, such a tectonic shift is likely to be provoked by an important deterioration in the person's circumstances which overwhelms his ego defences and leaves him with no alternative but to adopt the depressive or undefended position.

In Remembrance of Things Past, the early 20th century novelist Marcel Proust tells us, ‘Happiness is good for the body, but it is grief which develops the strengths of the mind.'

I am the author of Hide and Seek: The Psychology of Self-Deception and other books.

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