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Explanations > Behaviors > Coping > Rationalization

Description | Example | Discussion | So what?



When something happens that we find difficult to accept, then we will make up a logical reason why it has happened.

The target of rationalization is usually something that we have done, such as being unkind to another person. It may also be used when something happens independent of us which causes us discomfort, such as when a friend is unkind to us.

We not only rationalize actions and the things we have done, we also find reason for our beliefs, models, values and other inner structures and thoughts. These systems are often implied in rationalization statements.

We rationalize to ourselves. We also find it very important to rationalize to other people, even those we do not know.


A person evades paying taxes and then rationalizes it by talking about how the government wastes money (and how it is better for people to keep what they can).

A man buys a expensive car and then tells people his old car was very unreliable, very unsafe, etc.

A person fails to get good enough results to get into a chosen university and then says that they didn't want to go there anyway.

A parent punishes a child and says that it is for the child's 'own good'.

I trip and fall over in the street. I tell a passer-by that I have recently been ill.

A person explains their religious beliefs as 'God's will'.


When a person does something of which the moral super ego disapproves, then the ego seeks to defend itself by adding reasons that make the action acceptable to the super ego. Thus we are able to do something that is outside our values and get away with it without feeling too guilty.

When we rationalize our thoughts and inner systems, we may do this through other systems. Hence we may say our belief in capital punishment is because murders 'deserve what they give'.

Rationalization is related to our need to explain what happens and to maintain consistency between and amongst actions and thoughts. Our need for esteem also leads us to rationalize to others.

Rationalization happens with bullies and victims. The bully rationalizes what they have done by saying that their victim 'deserved it'. Sometimes the victims think this too.

Self-Serving Bias uses rationalization when it leads to taking more credit for success than we deserve and blame others for our failures.

Rationalization is one of Anna Freud's original defense mechanisms.

So what?

Watch for your own rationalizations. If you can be honest with yourself and with other people, you can gain esteem for your courage and integrity.

In persuasion, offer people logical reasons that people can use to rationalize their compliance with your arguments. Sometimes people disagree simply because they do not want to agree with you, such as with teenagers and parents, or perhaps do not like to feel persuaded,  so give them reasons to focus on the substance rather than the persuader.

See also

Esteem, Explain, Intellectualization, Self-Serving Bias, Consistency


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