Rationalization and Self Deception

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In her rambling confession to drowning her sons Michael, 3, and Alex,
14 months, in 1994 by strapping them into their seats in her Mazda
and rolling it into a South Carolina lake, Susan Smith wrote,
“I love my children with all my heart.
My children deserve to have the best,
and now they will.”

She had dispatched them to God.

From The Roots of Evil
Sharon Begley
May 21, 01


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[Humans have]  almost limitless capacity for self-deception.  The very nature of our brains--evolved to guess the most plausible interpretations of the limited evidence available--makes it almost inevitable that, without the discipline of scientific research, we shall often jump to wrong conclusions, especially about rather abstract matters.
Francis Crick,  The Astonishing Hypothesis

How many things we held yesterday as articles of faith
which today we tell as fables.
Michel de Montaigne

“…humankind/ Cannot bear very much reality.”
T.S. Eliot

a great deal of intelligence can be invested in ignorance when the need for illusion is deep
Saul Bellow

   Why deceive oneself?  I have often heard the statement that people believe what they want to believe and I think there is a lot of truth to that statement.  What would happen if a group with an agenda was to offer money to anyone who made their case for them?  Lets say Joe Shmoe who wanted their money agreed.  If Joe Shmoe had a conscience and disagreed with the groups agenda he might feel bad about doing that.  This creates two opposing incentives for Joe.  One is to stop making the case for the group.  The other is to believe the case he is making for the group.  Money then is creating the incentive to believe. 

   Alan Dershowitz wrote an article titled The Real Jimmy Carter about how Jimmy Carter accepted money from anti-Semitic sources in Saudi Arabia and mentioned that, that money could be swaying Jimmy Carter's outlook.  He wrote:

I have met cigarette lobbyists, who are supported by the cigarette industry, and who have come to believe honestly that cigarettes are merely a safe form of adult recreation, that cigarettes are not addicting and that the cigarette industry is really trying to persuade children not to smoke. These people are fooling themselves (or fooling us into believing that they are fooling themselves) just as  Jimmy Carter is fooling himself (or persuading us to believe that he is  fooling himself).

   Politicians have the incentive to believe what their supporters want them to believe and certainly to act as if they believe it.  One example of this is the Democratic response to the No Child Left Behind Law a law most of them voted for in 2001.  The law requires public school students to be tested annually in reading and math in third through eighth grade and once in High School.   It's hard to conceive an objection to setting standards for students and making sure that they learn skills important for their future success in the workplace.  One can understand why teachers who are unable to get their students to pass these tests would object to them however.  They are not going to object to the law on the grounds that they are failures as teachers.  They need a rationalization to do it.  The Philadelphia Metro (7/3/2007) wrote how teachers at the annual convention of the National Education Association hissed and booed at the mere mention of the law by Democratic presidential candidates and that many teachers wore buttons or stickers reading, "A child is more than a test score".  Does the No Child Left Behind Law say that a child is only a test score?  Of course not.  Making this argument though makes it sound like the law is a heartless law that reduces a child to a test score.  Democrats voted for this law but one wouldn't expect them to support it in front of a group that is hostile to it.  Senator Hillary Rodham Clinton told the audience that she had heard stories about teachers shaping their lesson plans to insure their students do well on the reading and math tests at the expense of other subjects.  So now the rationalization is the No Child Left Behind Law is preventing students from learning important subjects.  What could be more important and basic than reading and math?  A good teacher should be able to teach children the basics and other subjects.  There are students who are unwilling to study and behave in class and perhaps no teacher could get them to learn with the current laws that make it difficult if not impossible to enforce discipline in the classroom.  These laws I suspect were mostly the product of Democratic legislation.  Instead of rationalizing away the necessity of standards the Democrats should recognize the problems they have created and work to fix them.

   Bandura et. al. has give us the list below of rationalizations that people make to escape feeling guilty.  Self-excusing, guilt-escaping mechanisms (Bandura, A. (1980b). The self and mechanisms of agency. In J. Suls (Ed.), Social psychological perspectives on the self. Hillsdale, NJ: Erlbaum.)

1. Moral justification--believing our actions are for a just cause. "I stole to provide for my family" or "I lied to protect my friend" or "I cheated because I just had to pass" or see statements #9 and #10 above.

2. Euphemistic labeling--using a mild term to hide the actual harmfulness. "I took it" or "sort of borrowed" instead of stole. "I messed them up a little" instead of brutally assaulted. "I didn't tell him/her everything" instead of lied. "We have to take care of our own country first" instead of disregarding others' needs. "Freedom" is often a handy justification for doing whatever you want to do; see #9 above.

3. Looking good by comparison--"I didn't cheat nearly as much as John/Mary did." "A lot of millionaires don't pay any taxes." "The rich in India don't give to their own poor, so why should I?"

4. They told me to do it--"They talked me into going with them." "I am told what sales pitch to make, don't blame me if it isn't all true." "He/she just kept pushing until I gave in." "I do whatever the law says to do; if I was supposed to do more they would tell me to." See statement #5 above.

5. Denial of responsibility--"I just went along with the crowd." "I felt certain someone else would help her, there were people all around." "One person like me can't do anything about poverty." "I'm going to cheat on my taxes because of all the free-loaders on welfare." See statements #5 and #6 and #7 above.

6. Denial of consequences--"I just dropped the bombs on the coordinates I was told and flew back to the base." "I only shoplift from big chain stores; they never miss it." "Paying farmers to not grow food doesn't really affect hunger." "TV just sensationalizes about hunger; there is enough for everyone to eat."

7. Dehumanization--"There is nothing wrong with taking their land; they are just savages." "If they are that dumb, it's their fault they are taken advantage of." "Those godless Communists kill anybody in their way; we'd better get them before they knife us in the back." See statement #8 above.

8. You (the victim) caused me to do it--"If you hadn't been so nasty, I wouldn't have hit you." "You seemed like you were mad, so I went out with _____." "Those poor countries would take over this country if they could, I wouldn't give them a damned cent!" "The poor cause their own problems." See statement #8 above.

    Jonathan Pollard in an article for IMRA (7/25/04) wrote about the rationalizations he encountered in his life.  He wrote:

In nearly 2 decades in prison, I have been immersed in a world populated by criminals, among them murderers, rapists, child molesters, and paid assassins. The one thing that hard core criminals have in common is the uncanny ability to rationalize their crimes. They always have some excuse, some mitigating factor, which they feel justifies their having committed some of the most horrendous crimes - unjustifiable from any moral perspective.

Yonaton Bassi’s attitude and outlook as the new Head of the Evacuation Administration reminds me of stories that I have heard over the years from some of these criminals. For example, the story of Mark, a man I met many years ago, when he was doing time at FCI Butner. What was his crime? Mark had repeatedly raped his 4-year-old daughter, videotaped the rapes, and sold copies on the Internet. 

I once asked Mark how he could do such a thing to his own baby daughter. Didn’t he love her? How could he hurt her?  Didn’t he know that he was supposed to be protecting and defending his daughter, not debasing, humiliating and exploiting her?

Mark looked at me as if there were something wrong with me for asking such questions. Then he patiently replied that of course he loves his daughter. “After the first time it didn’t hurt her,” he explained, “and after that she seemed to like it.”

He went on to say that the money he made by selling the videos was good and his daughter enjoyed a better standard of living because of it-- so what’s wrong with that? After all, he said, sooner or later someone was going to teach her about ‘the birds and the bees’ (sex), “ so why not me, who really loves her?”

    Jonathan Pollard wrote this in an article in which he complained about the rationalizations of a religious Jew, Yonaton Bassi who accepted an appointment by Sharon to head the Evacuation Administration.  Religious Jews believe that God gave Israel to the Jews.  Yonaton Bassi rationalized accepting the appointment because he feels that as a religious person he can do this "difficult job" with greater compassion and sensitivity.

   There are politicians who defend their policies even after the harmful consequences of those policies come to light.  Condoleeza Rice insisted that elections be held in the areas controlled by the Palestinian Authority and that Hamas terrorists be allowed to run for office.  Once the Hamas officials won Secretary of State Rice defended the decision on the grounds that at least now Hamas was accountable to the population.  By that rationalization one could argue that it was good that Hitler came to power in Germany or that Kim Jong II came to power in North Korea since then they became accountable to the people.  (Rice, C.,  Helping Palestinians Build A Better Future, Keynote Address at the American Task Force on Palestine Inaugural Gala, Washington, DC.October 11, 2006 )

   After Rice coerced Israel into opening the border between Gaza and Egypt at Rafah, weapons poured into Gaza.  Instead of facing the reality that she played a part in creating a dangerously armed terrorist state Condoleeza Rice said regarding the concession she forced out of Israel (Rice, C., Remarks With Israeli Foreign Minister Tzipi Livni After Their Meeting, 2/8/2006):

And this did open an opportunity for peace, for a new kind of peace. We saw, in the Gaza, the beginning of coming to life of economic life there. We successfully got a Rafah crossing agreement.”

    Michael Cappi, author of the Never Ending War said the following about rationalizations about the Islamic threat in a Frontpage Magazine interview:

For the truly naïve there are the rationalizations galore to allow them to ignore the nature of the problem. The enemy are only a small group of fanatics, there is no need for examining a problem that is really of Bush’s doing, give them a Palestine and all will be well, etc, etc. Of course none of this has worked nor can it work. In 1400 years no country bordering an Islamic state has been able to live in peace with the Islamic state. It is always the same: Islamic infiltration, subversion, conquest or conversion of the non-Islamic population to Islam or submission on their part. By the way Islam in Arabic means submission it does not mean peace.

     Even with the discipline of scientific research people rationalize and jump to the wrong conclusions especially if they want those conclusions to be true.  A classic story about this is the story of Stanley Pons and Fleishman and the belief they had discovered  Cold Fusion.

     The following is a beautiful example of editors of a leading American journal of Cultural Studies believing nonsense because they wanted to from David Horowitz's book, The Professors.  He wrote about an experiment by physicist Alan Sokal as follows:

“To test prevailing intellectual standards,” Sokal explained, “I decided to try a modest (though admittedly uncontrolled) experiment: Would a leading North American journal of Cultural Studies – whose editorial collective includes such luminaries as [Duke Professor] Frederic Jameson[4] and [Princeton Professor] Andrew Ross – publish an article liberally salted with nonsense if (a) it sounded good and (b) it flattered the editors’ ideological preconceptions.”[5] The article Sokal submitted to Social Text was called, “Transgressing the Boundaries: Towards a Transformative Hermeneutics of Quantum Gravity.” Its thesis was that gravity was merely a social construct, an instrument of phallocentric hegemony. “In the second paragraph I declare, without the slightest evidence or argument, that ‘physical “reality” [note the scare quotes] …is at bottom a social and linguistic construct.’ Not our theories of physical reality, mind you, but the reality itself. Fair enough: anyone who believes that the laws of physics are mere social conventions is invited to try transgressing those conventions from the windows of my apartment. (I live on the 23rd floor.)”


Social Text published the article and were nationally embarrassed when Sokal revealed the hoax. “The editors of Social Text liked my article,” he explained afterwards, “because they liked its conclusion: that ‘the content and methodology of postmodern science provide powerful intellectual support for the progressive political project.”

    Most people if asked to look back at arguments that they have had believe that they have been in the right and the other people have been in the wrong.  Lets consider a hypothetical couple John and Susan.  If John had an argument with Susan and you asked both of them a few months later who was right and who was wrong in most cases John will say he was right and Susan was wrong and Susan will say she was right and John was wrong.  Either John or Susan's statement has to be wrong.   If they are in a dating relationship then their fights are likely to continue until one of them says "I am doing something that is causing these fights".  The rationalization by someone who is in the wrong that he is in the right can be very destructive in these situations.

    People generally have a desire to feel good about themselves. This desire to feel good about oneself can come into conflict with other desires. If a man is married and meets a more attractive woman he may want to have an affair with that woman and that desire may conflict with his desire to be a faithful husband. The woman may be attracted to the man but it may be against her morals to have an affair with a married man. Sometimes what happens in this case is that the woman and the man deceive themselves into believing that having the affair is all right. An example of a rationalization the woman could come up with is "His wife doesn't treat him right. I am doing a good thing by giving him the happiness that his awful wife takes away from him. He only stays with her because of the children. This rationalization is an example of creation of paranoia toward others in order to feel good about getting what one wants. The man could also rationalize to himself that his wife is not treating him right. The interaction of the man and his wife could deteriorate because he may start looking for excuses to see his wife in a bad light. He may have a general feeling of hostility toward his wife since liking her would make it harder to feel good about his affair. This would make it more likely for him to get into a fight with her. If she reacts to his provocation by making a critical statement that critical statement could become another excuse. This is in a sense a vicious cycle that can lead to the destruction of the marriage.

     The outcome of self deception and rationalization may be that the man and the women get what they want. The man may lose his marriage and a lot of grief may be caused to them, but he will get the woman he is more attracted to. He may cause his wife to hate him but he may not care that much. On the other hand the woman he gets is a woman who has affairs with married men and is likely to have an affair with another man. His relationship with her is unlikely to last and he may find himself without anyone. Although in this example I focused on a man's rationalization, a woman who finds a man who she desires more than her husband could also rationalize in a similar fashion.

   A great example of rationalizing an affair is that by  Susan Estrich, former campaign manager for Democratic Presidential nominee Gov. Michael Dukakis.   She rationalized President Clinton's affair with Monica Lewinsky with the following statement, "Should allegedly finding comfort, release, satisfaction and peace in the arms of a beautiful 21 year-old count for  more than balancing the budget?".   There are actually two rationalizations in this statement.  One is that the credit for balancing the budget all goes to Clinton.  The other is obvious when one considers what Susan Estrich would have said if a Republican candidate had been cheating on his wife with a woman the age of his daughter.

     An episode of Geraldo, a talk show program, about violence in schools showed a great example of such rationalization. A panel of teachers who had been violently attacked and students who had attacked teachers spoke with Geraldo and the audience. All the students were convinced that they were the victims and they were justified in their actions. It is very easy to rationalize justification for one's actions by ignoring how one provoked the other person and concentrating on what the other person did to oneself after they were provoked.

     A tragic example of this was the rationalizations of a man who in (1995) raped and murdered, Kimberly Ernest, a young woman living in Philadelphia. He explained that she caught him stealing a car and stopped him from doing it. He perceived himself as a victim and felt justified in raping and murdering her.

     Paranoid rationalizations may help one get what one wants in the short term but it is likely to lead to reprisal by the person being taken advantage of. In addition it creates paranoia and paranoia leads to unhappiness and attacks on the object of paranoia who is likely to strike back.

     Rationalizations create vicious cycles. In the previous examples the rationalizations created paranoia. The paranoia often leads to hostile acts on one's part toward the object of one's paranoia. The object of one's paranoia naturally develops paranoia towards oneself and is likely to act in a hostile way. This then leads oneself to become more paranoid and a vicious cycle is created.

     In the first case that was described, the paranoia is combined with the desire to have an affair. This results in hurting one's spouse and hostile behavior to one's spouse. That results in the spouse feeling paranoid and becoming hostile and a vicious cycle results. Guilt feelings can lead to hostility. If a man feels guilty for cheating on his wife he wants to stop feeling guilty. In order to stop feeling guilty he will be motivated to rationalize that his wife deserves it and that his wife didn't treat him right and so on. Once he has convinced himself that his wife is so terrible he will become hostile to her and mean to her. So instead of making amends he will become hostile to her because he hurt her.

     The techniques of self deception usually involve distorting one's beliefs by magnifying the bad aspects of someone's actions or generalizing. The mind in order to deceive itself has more trouble changing facts than it has distorting or omitting them. An example of omitting facts would be the following argument. Lets consider two hypothetical people, Gertrude and Esmerelda. Lets say that Gertrude cuts in front of Esmerelda in a line in the supermarket. Esmerelda says to Gertrude, "Go to the back of the line, don't you have any manners?" Gertrude says to Esmerelda "Don't you tell me what to do." Esmerelda goes to the security man in the supermarket and complains about Gertrude. The security guard goes to Gertrude and says go to the back of the line. Gertrude storms out of the supermarket saying "I'll never shop in this place again. It's overpriced anyway. " She waits outside for Esmerelda. When Esmerelda comes outside Gertrude tells her "I'm going to get you for this." Esmerelda replies "I'll call the police on you you (curse word) ".

     We can all imagine this story happening because we have all observed people whose behavior is similar to Gertrude's behavior. Gertrude is convinced that Esmerelda has mistreated her even though Esmerelda's actions were justified. This is an example of a paranoia generating rationalization. Part of Gertrude's rationalization involves omitting her provocation of Esmerelda. Gertrude is focusing on Esmerelda's actions and ignoring the fact that she provoked Esmerelda. This is therefore also an example of rationalization through omission. Gertrude is ignoring her responsibility in order to protect her self esteem. The result however was that Esmerelda attacked her self esteem.

     Another type of rationalization is Utopian rationalization. People who want to create a perfect situation often come up with a theory on the way to achieve that perfect situation. These people frequently feel a great desire not only for the perfect situation to exist, but also to be recognized as the great creators of the situation. These people often rationalize that they have a superior understanding to that of everyone else and that those who disagree are evil. The utopians rationalize away all evidence that their policies are flawed with theories they rationalize in their mind. These people can be very dangerous. For example, the Unabomber wanted to create a perfect society. He saw technology as preventing that perfection from being achieved so he killed innocent people who were leaders in technology development. The Unabomber saw these innocent people as evil and so felt justified in killing them.

     Appeasement polices can be one of the outcomes of Utopian rationalization. The desire to believe that there is a nonviolent way out of a situation when there is none can lead to confusion of appeasement with peace making and result in much more violence then would have occurred otherwise. An example of this is Neville Chamberlain. He wanted peace in Europe so he gave away the Sudetenland to the Nazis. According to Jonathan Netanyahu (1963-1976), the leader of the rescue at Entebbe of the Hijacked Air France hostages, the Israelis are plagued by Self Deception.  He said:

I see with sorrow and great anger how a part of the people still clings to
hopes of reaching a peaceful settlement with the Arabs. Common sense tells
them, too, that the Arabs haven't abandoned their basic aim of destroying the
State; but the self-delusion and self-deception that have always plagued the
Jews are at work again. It's our great misfortune. They want to believe, so
they believe. They want not to see, so they shut their eyes. They want not to
learn from thousands of years of history, so they distort it. They want to
bring about a sacrifice, and they do indeed. It would be comic, it wasn't so
tragic. What a saddening and irritating lot this Jewish people is!

   When Israel does strike back at Arab attacks it is widely condemned throughout the world.  Israel is faced with terrorist attacks from other countries that shelter the terrorists and provides them assistance.  Israel is attacked by terrorists who base themselves among civilians.  If it holds the country that shelters the terrorists responsible it is widely condemned for disproportionate response as it was when it went into Lebanon to eradicate Hezbollah.  The condemners of Israel ignored the fact that Hezbollah was firing a constant barrage of missiles at Israeli population centers.  When Israel instead of striking back builds a fence/wall to prevent snipers from shooting Israeli civilians and to keep suicide bombers and terrorists out this is widely condemned too.  Is this rationalization and self deception?  Clearly Arab propaganda against Israeli attempts to eradicate terrorists and to protect her population is deception.  Are the people in the West who believe this deceiving themselves?  The Palestinian Arabs have successfully portrayed themselves as the underdog and their is a natural tendency in the world to sympathize with the underdog.  Sympathizing with the Muslim underdog has the added bonus that it is what the rich Saudis want us to do.  In addition those who have hostility to the United States and Israel will have an incentive to believe that Arab propaganda is true.

    An excellent page about Self Deception can be found in the Skeptics Dictionary.


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