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Rationalization is the process in thinking of constructing a logical justification for a decision, action or lack thereof that was originally arrived at through a different mental process.

This process can be in a range from fully conscious (e.g. to present an external defense against ridicule from others) to mostly subconscious (e.g. to create a block against internal feelings of guilt).

For an example, consider a person who bought one of the first home computers in 1980 primarily motivated by the excitement of playing with a computer. If he felt that his friends would not accept "having fun" as a sufficient reason for the purchase, he might have searched for other justifications and ended up telling them how much time it was going to save him in doing his taxes.

People rationalize for various reasons. Rationalization may differentiate the original deterministic explanation of the behavior or feeling in question.[1][2] Sometimes rationalization occurs when we think we know ourselves better than we do. It is also an informal fallacy of reasoning.[3]

Cognitive dissonance

Main article: Cognitive dissonance

A rather different, but perhaps complementary, approach to rationalization comes from cognitive dissonance. 'In 1957. Leon Festinger...argued that when people become aware that their attitudes, thoughts, and beliefs ("cognitions") are inconsistent with one another, this realization brings with it an uncomfortable state of tension called cognitive dissonance '.[4]

One answer to the discomfort of the situation is that 'their minds rationalize it by inventing a comfortable illusion'.[5] Thus for example 'people who start to smoke again after quitting for a while perceive smoking to be less dangerous to their health, compared to their views when they decided to stop' - thereby averting their 'post-decisional regret'[6] through their new rationalization.

In a similar way, acts of aggression will often be seen as 'reasonable, well justified, even necessary...rationalizing their self-interest in these ways'; so that, to cite 'Martin Luther King, Jr...."It seems to be a fact of life that human beings cannot continue to do wrong without eventually reaching out for some rationalization to clothe their act"'.[7] The same may be said of the collective scale. 'When groups commit aggression, they, too, rationalize their acts with high-sounding words...rationalizing their own self-interested desires',[7] so that, for example, 'The own God is the right God. The other God is the strange God....Our own soldiers take care of the poor families; the enemy rapes them'.[8]

As a defence mechanism

Rationalization (defence mechanism) is one of the defense mechanisms proposed by Sigmund Freud, which were later developed further by his daughter Anna Freud.

According to the DSM-IV rationalization occurs "when the individual deals with emotional conflict or internal or external stressors by concealing the true motivations for his or her own thoughts, actions, or feelings through the elaboration of reassuring or self serving but incorrect explanations."

See also


  1. Kendra Van Wagner. Defense Mechanisms - Rationalization. Psychology. URL accessed on 2008-02-24.
  2. Defenses. URL accessed on 2008-03-11.
  3. [1]
  4. E. R. Smith and D. M. Mackie, Social Psychology (Hove 2007) p. 277-8
  5. Scott Adams, in Smith/Mackie, Social p. 280
  6. Smith/Mackie, Social p. 283-4
  7. 7.0 7.1 Smith/Mackie, Social p. 513
  8. Fritz Perls, Gestalt Theory Verbatim (Bantam 1971) p. 9

Further reading

Informal fallacies
Special pleading | Red herring | Gambler's fallacy and its inverse
Fallacy of distribution (Composition | Division) | Begging the question | Many questions
Correlative-based fallacies:
False dilemma (Perfect solution) | Denying the correlative | Suppressed correlative
Deductive fallacies:
Accident | Converse accident
Inductive fallacies:
Hasty generalization | Overwhelming exception | Biased sample
False analogy | Misleading vividness | Conjunction fallacy
False precision | Slippery slope
Amphibology | Continuum fallacy | False attribution (Contextomy | Quoting out of context)
Equivocation (Loki's Wager | No true Scotsman)
Questionable cause:
Correlation does not imply causation | Post hoc | Regression fallacy
Texas sharpshooter | Circular cause and consequence | Wrong direction | Single cause
Other types of fallacy
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