It could be argued that rationalisation is the psychological process most damaging to personal development. It acts as a severe restraint to growth, learning, improvement, success and ultimately happiness. Unfortunately, it is also one of the most common – thus a recipe for underachievement en-masse!
Rationalisation occurs when a person (possibly due to a need for consistency) uses a logical and sometimes unrelated argument to justify their irrational feelings, actions, thoughts or point of view. They do or say something and then find a rational, logical argument to back up what they’ve done. This argument is formulated retrospectively and is not the real reason for their actions.
Children rationalise all the time. Your child hits their sibling out of sheer anger and then frantically searches for a logical explanation or justification. Hence an elaborate explanation to justify it (“he said this”, “she stole my car”, “he hit me” – each of which are totally untrue)
As well as children, adults too rationalise all the time. Have you ever been in an argument where the other person goes from reason to reason to justify what they did and eventually they are so far from the real reason that you have both forgotten what you are arguing about? They are simply trying to prove they are right and will use any amount of logical (or illogical) argument to do so.
It is a particular problem in social mobility as people from lower socio-economic groups often ascribe their harmful, illogical actions to logical ideas or motivation. This is dangerous as it can make people accept a life they are not happy with. For example, people (all all socio-economic groups) have a tendency to use the argument “I like being this shape” or “thin people are all vein” as a way to rationalise their poor diet or attitude to health. Rather than attempt to change their circumstances, they try to improve their mental view of their lives by lowering their perception of other people (see contrast principle), or reframing arguments to suit their behaviour. This constant need to improve their self-image by rationalising can result in low personal effectiveness leading to bitterness, polarisation of social groups and entrenchment in a situation in which they are fundamentally unhappy.
Be very wary of rationalising! The first and most important step in personal development is honesty with yourself – rationalisation is a severe fetter to this personal honesty. Don’t look for excuses, look for ways to get better!