We Are Masters of Rationalizations

Not all reasons are created equal. 

A former colleague once told me that she wished there was a job called professional rationalizer. She was adept at conjuring up a solid set of reasons for just about anything, and  she excelled at it. It’s a skill that most people value, even if they’re not willing to pay a professional to do it for them. It gives some meaning and logic to choices we make.

The truth is that most of us are excellent rationalizers. Often, we know what we want and then allow ourselves to build a good case for it, devaluing the con evidence and focusing on the pros. It doesn’t take much smarts to do this. It’s just the way most of us think. We can come up with reasons to do anything. Defending our desires and actions has been a key skill since childhood. The better we get at it, the more we can get away with, and the more we can feel good about our decisions. After all, we have our reasons.

Skillfully justifying our decisions is how we end up with so much stuff. It’s the tactic most often used when both buying and deciding to keep an item. Stuff you already own has general rationalizations built-in: What if I need this one day? It’s small and not taking up too much room so why not keep it? What if someone else in my family wants it later? 

We may create specific reasons to keep a particular item on top of these general ones, if we want to build the case further. This makes us think the decision is a rational and perhaps even kind or responsible choice. It’s difficult to undo this. We tend to stop reducing our possessions once we find decent and logical reasoning to keep something. For new products, we may conduct endless research and hold heavy the sales or good deals we got. With our seemingly solid list of reasons, we think this is enough and the case is settled. If we reopen the issue later, we find that this is still nailed into our mindset and pulling out nails can be a pain. We think it’s enough to come up with good reasons to keep or buy something and leave it at that.

No matter how reasonable your reasons sound, to yourself and others, they may not stand up well in the face of the bigger picture. For example, many small, seemingly logical reasons exist for doing things that also, unintentionally, create larger environmental problems. Even just within the context of our own lives, these siloed decisions may make sense, but when you pull out the lens wider to see the implications to your finances, daily stressors, and misplacing things, multiple rationalized- but not overall good- decisions have a greater affect. It’s truly a “whole is greater than the sum of its parts” type scenario. In this case, the greater is typically not great in the scheme of what would improve your life. 

How do you control for your tendency to become a master of rationalizations? Acknowledge that you do this in the first place. Most of us aren’t even aware of it. Observing ourselves is key in being more mindful about our actions. Then, we can change our behaviors. When you find yourself thinking through a decision to keep or buy something, take step back, and consider the bigger picture of your life. This big picture view doesn’t end the rationalizing but it does help us develop a better decision-making hierarchy. It prevents us from the underlying assumption that all reasons are created equal. And in the end, we’ll end up with less stuff.