Rationalization


You see this beautiful girl standing across the room. You would like to approach her and start a conversation, but then you think to yourself “Nah, she probably has a boyfriend. Also she wouldn’t like me anyway. Not to mention that I need to focus on studying, I don’t really have time for relationships.” So you look away, go home, play World of Warcraft, eat a pizza, feed your cats, hump your human-sized action figure of Chewbacca, go to sleep, and die alone.

Were your excuses the actual reasons for not approaching? Imagine if you’d know with 100% certainty that you will not get rejected, would you still decide that you’d rather focus on studying?

Rationalization means coming up with seemingly logical/rational explanations for irrational behavior. We do whatever feels good, or whatever is easy/convenient/profitable, and then come up with explanations that make us feel better about our decisions.

Imagine you want to buy a new car. You don’t know much about the recent models, so you research, select a few options, look at their specs, make the list of pros and cons of each one. At the bottom the list, you finally write down your decison.

Now let’s say you’re a salesman, and your job is to sell a certain model. You take a sheet of paper, and at the bottom you write “and that’s is why this is the best car ever”. Then you do your research, compare options, and above the bottom line, you write a list of reasons why that’s the best model.

You are not lying, all the reasons are true, but you started thinking about them after the choice has already been determined. Your answer was already either true or false before you came up with explanations, and they could not change your choice. Your actualreason for making it was “that’s my job to sell this car”.

It is impossible to make a choice or belief rational even by using the smartest, most convincing arguments. The purpose of rationality is not to argue convincingly for a position, but to decide which position to argue for. Once your position is fixed, it can not become more rational. Rationality takes evidence and knowledge and looks for the best, most accurate conclusions. Rationalization runs in reverse, it starts with the conclusion and searches for reasons. If you already know your answer — thinking about it doesn’t matter.

Your success is determined by how good your decisions are, and when you are rationalizing, the actual algorithm you are using to make decisions is “whatever feels good”.

So how do you defeat rationalization? First of all, it comes down to being aware of it, and being honest with yourself. Always ask — what are the actual reasons for my beliefs/decisions/actions?

  • Are you eating this ice cream because “well, it has nuts in it, so it’s actually kinda healthy” or because it tastes good?
  • Are you playing this computer game because “life is to be enjoyed”, and this game actually brings you joy? It is the best thing you want to do with your life right now, or just the easiest?
  • Do you skip gym this time because it’s the best day to take a break and let your body rest and restore, or because it’s raining outside?
  • Now that you didn’t get that job, it doesn’t seem that great, is it because didn’t actually want it anyway?

And be suspicious when your explanations conveniently happen to give you the permission to do the thing you wanted to do before coming up with them, or make you feel better about doing/believing things that you like:

  • Do keep your religion because it’s a “good moral guidance”, because it makes sense, or because your parents believed in it?
  • Are you defending piracy because “it actually helps companies to promote their content, so it’s not a big deal, also information should be free”, or because it’s really convenient to watch a free movie?
  • Is your city or country actually the best place in the world, or do you like it because you were born here?

Also notice that when you are looking for answers that you don’t already know, you feel curious, you are craving to know the answer, yet rationalization usually makes you more confident/comfortable/justified.