How to spot a rationalization

In this week’s video blog, I talk about why it’s important to be able to spot your own rationalizations, and tricks to help you do so:

17 Responses to How to spot a rationalization

  1. Steve says:

    That’s what I do whenever I write a comment on a blog and decide not to post it. No one will read it anyway, or someone will misinterpret it and have a long argument with me about their misinterpretation, etc.

  2. Cory Albrecht says:

    Yeah, it just might be worth it to ask her out but for a shy introvert that’s a scary thing to do! Besides, my rationalization is that I’m not telepathic. 🙂 Therefore I’m probably misinterpreting any friendliness as more and if I ask it will lead to embarrassment, awkwardness and loss of friendship so I couldn’t possibly tell her I like her since I don’t know the inside of he head, now could I? But, yes, if I knew I would ask, alas.

    I’m wondering if that would qualify as one of those times where instrumental vs epistemic rationality (from your previous video) would not agree? It would be epistemically rational to just admit that why I don’t tell her that I like her is because I’m socially inept and afraid of the risk, benefits of greater personal insight and all that; but instrumentally rational to not tell her and preserve some portion of my self esteem and avoid the embarassment. It strikes me that maybe this is some sort of Kafka-esque recursive meta-rationalization, so please forgive my ramblings. Just nod and smile. 🙂

    As for eating that larger portion size, well, if I don’t eat it I’ll just end up throwing it out which would be wasteful, yes? Wasteful of the money I spent to buy the food, of the time I spent preparing it, wasteful of resources from an environmental awareness perspective. “Waste not, want not” was impressed into every fibre of my Mennonite heritage from a young age, but not lack of rationalization.

    (But I’ve always thought these should be called “irrationalizations” because any rationality is only superficial.)

  3. Julia Galef says:

    @Cory — Well, if it’s sufficiently unpleasant to admit to yourself that you don’t have a chance with some person, then you’re right, that could be a case in which deluding yourself is instrumentally (though not epistemically) rational. But in practice, I think the pain of facing the truth isn’t as bad as people dread it will be… not to mention the fact that you simply won’t know which people are “out of reach,” if any, unless you try. Also, your skills (at detecting interest, and also at asking people out) won’t develop if you opt for the self-delusion route.

    Regarding wastefulness — from a utilitarian standpoint, I don’t really see the point of forcing yourself to eat food rather than throw it away. The right lesson to draw from the situation “I bought/made too much food” is simply “I should buy/make less food next time” — you’re not helping anyone by eating the extra food once it’s already there.
    (Note: if you were talking about saving the leftovers for later, that’s another story. I’m simply talking about the choice between eating it all now, or throwing out the extra.)

    • Cory Albrecht says:

      Re:wastefulness – I would agree that buy/make less is the lesson one should learn from the situation, but to my mind that’s exactly what makes the “I should eat it all so as no to waste” a rationalization. (Looking back at my comment, yeah, I can see how that might not have been clear that I meant to illustrate another example. Sorry.) So what should have been a responsible guideline for one’s actions instead becomes a rationalization for (occasional) gluttony.

      Re: social interaction – Again, agreed. I guess it all comes down how one weights the possible outcomes and the potential benefits of failure.

      OK, so now that we know how to spot rationalizations and assuming we can admit it when we catch ourselves doing so instead of just shoving it under the psychological rug, where do we go next? Not being a psychologist, I would guess that the reason we rationalize is to prop up our self esteem in that we’ve made the “right” choice to do whatever. I also suspect that there will be some rationalizations that are so deeply embedded that we will never catch them.

      I’m reminded of the topic mentioned at NECSS of how loss aversion often outweighs a similar sized reward. (Was that Jacob Appel who said that?) I wonder how that affects our propensity to make rationalizations in the first place, and if there’s a way to use it to our advantage to stop?

  4. Julia Galef says:

    @Steve — If the reasons you list are just rationalizations… then do you have any sense of what your real reason for deciding not to post comments is?

  5. Kevin says:

    I’m glad to see this material online after hearing it on Monday. I actually used the “box of cookies” example earlier today when talking to a friend about rationalizations.

    • Julia Galef says:

      Ha, excellent. Glad someone can benefit from my stupidity!
      Also, it was so great to meet you on Monday at RPI. It’s legit for me to plagiarize my own lecture, right?

      • Cory Albrecht says:

        Just remember to cite yourself in a footnote next time. Your impact rating will go up 🙂

      • Kevin says:

        My friend was pretty sure he had made the exact same statement before, so it’s not just you.

        It was great to meet you as well. As far as plagiarizing your own lecture: go for it! It makes it easier to spread the rationality, but I still feel special because we got the “sneak preview.”

  6. Max says:

    It helps to imagine what advice you’d give to a friend who is in your position. Like, “You should totally ask her out,” or, “You should go to a doctor.”

  7. Steve says:

    I don’t think I express myself in writing very well, so anything I write seems to me to be a poor approximation of what I really am trying to get across. Of course that could be just another one. Damn you and your doubt you sow! 😉

    • Max says:

      Who are you calling Uncle Tom?!

    • Cory Albrecht says:

      @Steve: Well, you know what is said – the more intelligent you are the more intricate rationalizations you are able to come up with. 🙂

      • Steve says:

        Unfortunately research on split brain patients shows that it only takes half a brain to come up with a rationalization. The so called “Interpreter”, as Michael Gazzaniga calls it, is found in the left hemisphere (also the side that language is usually lateralized), in split brain patients when they are asked to explain actions which are controlled by the right hemisphere, the Interpreter kicks in and comes up with nonsense confabulations. This is because it’s not getting any information from the right hemisphere due to the split.

        Although, I suppose more intelligent people’s Interpreters probably do come up with more intricate rationalizations, this could explain why really intelligent people who believe in nonsense, are the hardest to try convince otherwise.

  8. Graham says:

    I think split brain patients have interesting implications for how the rest of us rationalize things like our personality in general. Most people assume that experiences have a large impact on us, but I’m not really convinced. I think people are mainly just hard-wired to be depressed or shy or whatever they are, but when they try to explain their personality, they fall back on experiences. I think it’ s more likely that we’re just cherry picking experiences that would confirm what we already are.

  9. Steven Brent says:

    Whenever I really try to pay attention to the rationalizations which inform my actions (or inactions), it’s dismayingly obvious that all of my cultivated rationality and critical thinking skills can’t change the essentially manufactured quality of my individual experience. The good news is, as Julia points out, one may to a certain extent consciously correct for this weirdness.

    (I originally had ‘manufactured’, above, as ‘hallucinatory’ — but felt that it made me sound like a psycho.)

  10. MCRumph says:

    One can go longer without sex than without a rationalization. And who wants to be rational all the time anyway? Reason, like most things in life, should be engaged in moderation.

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