Why are we so prone to rationalization? Perhaps because from infancy we are taught to explain our actions (“Why did you do that!?”). It was a bad lesson, and it’s time to un-learn it.
rationalization, I don’t know, rationalizing
Rationalization: “The devising of self-satisfying but false reasons for one’s behavior.” Sometimes we don’t know why we do what we do, and perhaps such ignorance is okay, or should be. Our temptation is always to explain, but that often does nothing useful. In fact, it can just get in the way of actual understanding.
Rationalization – A Clinical Example
When John went to the hypno-therapist, he was hypnotised, and given the post-hypnotic instruction to get up and put on his coat whenever the therapist touched his nose. Once he was out of the trance, they began to talk. The therapist scratched his nose at some point in the conversation, and John immediately stood up and put on his coat.
When the therapist asked him why, John explained “Oh, I thought we were finished,” and he took off the coat and sat down again. Shortly afterwards, the doctor touched his nose again. John again immediately stood up and put on his coat. “It’s getting cold in here,” he explained this time. He never knew he was unconsciously responding to a post-hypnotic suggestion.
Of course, if you think about it for a moment, you’ll realize that this scenario is not unique to hypnosis. Many factors go into our decisions and actions, and we act as though we’re aware of them all. Like poor John, we feel compelled to explain ourselves – and to believe our explanations. One of our strongest habits is rationalization.
Just Say ‘I Don’t Know’
When a child throws a plate at his brother, and his mother demands “Why would you do that!?” he says, “I don’t know.” It is almost certainly the honest answer, but it isn’t acceptable. With hours to study the child, a pychologists might not understand the child’s action with certainty, but a six-year-old is expected to understand his behavior and have an explanation ready in seconds.
Now, he may not understand his own motivations, but he quickly understands that an explanation is expected. As a result, by adulthood, it is rare for any of us to say “I don’t know” when asked about our behavior. We instantly explain. This is a problem, isn’t it? How can we learn the true causes if we already accept our rationalizations?
Perhaps a better approach is to get in the habit of saying “I don’t know.” For the sake of our own comfort, we could follow with “Maybe it’s because of…” and let the explanations spill out, as long as we aren’t too quick to accept any of them. We need to understand that it isn’t always necessary to explain.
Suppose, for example, that you are avoiding a ertain person, and don’t really know why. Isn’t it better to leave the question open than to accept a false explanation based on a habit of self-justification? If you leave questions unanswered, you may someday have a better understanding. Quick answers mean a quick stop in your thinking.
Self-explanation can be the opposite of self-understanding. Maybe it’s time to learn to accept our ignorance, and to start observing ourselves. Just say, “I don’t know,” to break the habit of rationalization.