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The need to: Explain


Explanations > Needs > Explain

Expertise | Appearing rational | So what?



If we can explain something, we can claim expertise. This gives us two very useful benefits:

  • Control : If I am expert in something, then I understand it and can use that knowledge to control it.
  • Social position :Expertise is a form of power, that leads to other people looking up to me, either in admiration (or fear) of my power or in gratitude from the use (or not) I have made of it on their behalf.

Appearing rational

When we goof off or do something of which others might disapprove, we will desperately try to explain ourselves. Why is this? It is because we fear appearing irrational and hence being rejected by others. 

Explaining demonstrates our rationality and enables others to predict what we are likely to do and hence not consider us a threat. There are often unwritten group norms about appearing rational and we will help our friends  save face when they appear irrational for example by explaining how they are having a 'bad day'.

There is a difference between explaining and explaining away. When we explain, we seek a rational reason that will make sense to ourselves and others into the future. When we explain away, we seek any plausible (or even emotional) argument that will get rid of our discomfort around not understanding something or not being able to explain it well to others.

So what?

Gain credibility by demonstrating your own expertise in a topic of interest, but beware in doing this that you do not belittle or embarrass the other person too much.

Build friendship by helping the other person save face through your rational explanation of their failures and strange misdeeds (that you may have engineered).

Helping embarrassed people explain away their problems can make them more friendly towards you. Challenging people when they try to explain away things can be a good way of winning an argument, for example by showing how their explanations are insufficient.

It is perhaps unsurprising that there is a whole section on this website called 'Explanations'. This was created out of your author's need to explain and to help you satisfy your similar need. In practice, the whole site helps in various ways to explain what people do when seeking to persuade.

See also

Attribution Theory, Rationalization Trap, Self-Serving Bias

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