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Rationalization (making excuses)

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In psychology and logic, rationalization (or making excuses[1]) is a defense mechanism in which perceived controversial behaviors or feelings are explained in a rational or logical manner to avoid the true explanation, to differentiate from the original deterministic explanation, of the behavior or feeling in question.[2][3] It is also an informal fallacy of reasoning.[citation needed]

This process ranges 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).

DSM definitionEdit

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."

Rationalization and psychoanalysisEdit

Ernest Jones was 'the man who, appropriately, contributed the term "rationalization" to psychoanalysis (in 1908) - "the inventing of a reason for an attitude or action the motive of which is not recognized"'[4]. Although Jones 'had not coined the term - the Oxford English Dictionary records the year of its first use as 1846' - he was the first to employ it in the context of psychoanalysis: 'No one will admit that he ever deliberately performed an irrational act, and any act that might appear so is immediately justified by...providing a false explanation that has a plausible ring of rationality'[5].

The term was taken up almost immediately by Sigmund Freud to account for the explanations offered for neurotic symptoms - 'a process which (borrowing a useful term from Ernest Jones [1908] we may describe as "rationalization"'[6] - and was later developed further by his daughter Anna Freud[citation needed].

However the concept itself (as opposed to the term) can be traced back millennia earlier, to Quintilian and classical rhetoric: 'The "pat excuse" is the color, a frequent technical term among the rhetoricians for any approach that would present an action in the most favourable possible light'[7]. By the eighteenth century, it was almost a commonplace that, were a man to consider his actions, 'he will soon find, that such of them, as strong inclination and custom have prompted him to commit, are generally dressed out and painted with all the false beauties [color] which, a soft and flattering hand can give them'[8].

What psychoanalysis added was the specific idea of the motives that were glossed or colored being unconscious, a point developed further by Lundhold, "Repression and Rationalization", in 1933, and by Hollitscher, "The Concept of Rationalization" in 1939[9]. By the 1940s Fenichel could distinguish 'various types of rationalization...Emotional attitudes become permissible on condition that they are justified as "reasonable"', but equally 'Defensive attitudes and resistances, which seem irrational because their real purpose is unconscious, frequently are "rationalized" by the ego's foisting other secondary purposes upon them'[10].

For a near-determinist like Eric Berne, one's 'important decisions are already early childhood': thereafter 'other decisions...are "directed" decisions rationalized on spurious grounds'[11]. Once a decision has been made on unconscious grounds, 'without the individual's being aware of the real forces behind it. he takes upon himself the task of finding justifications for it..."rationalization"'[12].

Lacan in his concept of meconnaissance came very close to the same idea: 'everything that the ego neglects, scotomizes, misconstrues...everything that it ignores, exhausts, and binds in the significations that it receives from language'[13].

Some later psychoanalysts might take a more positive view of the process, suggesting that 'Intellectualisation and rationalisation...bridge the gap between immature mechanisms and those of maturity'[14]; but to object relations theory it could be part of a more sinister process whereby the mind 'detaches feelings from their true locus and attaches them to the exact reverse; it falsifies judgement; it splits intellect from feeling and enslaves reason...a process called rationalization'[15].

Cognitive dissonance and rationalisationEdit

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 '[16].

One answer to the discomfort of the situation is that 'their minds rationalize it by inventing a comfortable illusion'[17]. 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'[18] 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"'[19]. 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'[19], 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'[20].

Such collective rationalizations come close perhaps to the communal illusions of which Freud wrote as 'derived from human wishes...Must not the assumptions that determine our political regulations be called illusions as well? and...may not other cultural assets of which we hold a high opinion and by which we let our lives be ruled be of a similar nature?[21].


Based on anecdotal and survey evidence, Banja[22] states that rationalisation is very common amongst the medical profession in covering up medical errors. Common excuses made are:

  • "Why disclose the error? The patient was going to die anyway"
  • "Telling the family about the error will only make them feel worse"
  • "It was the patient's fault, If he wasn't so (obese, sick etc), this error wouldn't have caused so much harm"
  • "Well, we did our best. These things happen"
  • "If we're not totally and absolutely certain the error caused the harm, we don't have to tell."

See alsoEdit


  1. Understanding Rationalization: Making Excuses as an Effective Manipulation Tactic
  2. Kendra Van Wagner. "Defense Mechanisms - Rationalization". Psychology. Retrieved 2008-02-24.
  3. "Defenses". Retrieved 2008-03-11.
  4. Adam Phillips, On Flirtation (London 1994) p. 109
  5. brenda maddox, Freud's Wizard (London 2006) p. 61
  6. Sigmund Freud, Case Histories II (London 1991) p. 184
  7. Peter Green trans., Juvenal: The Sixteen Satires "Middlesex 1982) p. 156
  8. Lawrence Sterne, Tristram Shandy (Middlesex 1976) p. 147
  9. Otto Fenichel, The Psychoanalytic Theory of Neurosis (London 1946) p. 625 and p. 637
  10. Fenichel, Psychoanalytic p. 485-6
  11. Eric Berne, What Do You say after You Say Hello? (London 1975) p. 31 and p. 398
  12. Eric Berne, A Layman's Guide to Psychiatry and Psychoanalysis (Middlesex 1976) p. 96-7
  13. Jacques Lacan, Ecrits: A Selection (London 1996) p. 22
  14. A. Bateman and J. Holmes, Introduction to Psychoanalysis (London 1999) p. 92
  15. Neville Symington, On Narcissism (London 2003) p. 118
  16. E. R. Smith and D. M. Mackie, Social Psychology (Hove 2007) p. 277-8
  17. Scott Adams, in Smith/Mackie, Social p. 280
  18. Smith/Mackie, Social p. 283-4
  19. 19.0 19.1 Smith/Mackie, Social p. 513
  20. Fritz Perls, Gestalt Theory Verbatim (Bantam 1971) p. 9
  21. Sigmund Freud, Civilization, Society and Religion (Middlesex 1987) p. 213 and p. 216
  22. Banja, John, Medical Errors and Medical Narcissism, 2005

Further readingEdit

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