Dangers of Self-Rationalization

Having just completed a change in my career path, I've been thinking a lot about decision-making processes. Almost any time we make decisions, we're looking for some sort of rationale to justify our actions to ourselves. The bigger the decision, the more compelled we feel to have a strong line of reasoning. It's in this need for justification that we can let the facts get skewed if we're not careful.

Let's take shopping for some jeans as an example. Major decision, right?

Ever notice how a new pair of jeans are suddenly your favorite ever? They're obviously the best jeans because of the cut or the designer or the particular fading used. And while they're your favorite, you look for every opportunity to wear those pants, but they become just another pair of jeans sooner or later.

One of the things happening here is that we tell ourselves two key ideas:

  1. The new jeans are the best.
  2. Any other pair of jeans is inferior.

Both of these ideas can be dangerous. Like we talked about a second ago, our fascination of the new will fade, so there has to be something more behind our affection for the jeans if our feeling of appreciation is going to continue.

The second idea -- the sudden declaration of inferiority to all the other jeans -- can be rather damaging to you and those around you.

Let's say you're rather vocal in your love for your new favorite jeans, and you tell all your friends how much better this new pair is than all the rest. It's only after the fact that you remember some of those friends bought jeans for you. You've just told them their gifts were inferior to your own purchasing decision. Is that what you meant to say? Perhaps. Maybe if your friends understood what you were really looking for in a pair of pants, they'd be more likely to buy you what you wanted. (Probably not the best way of letting them know your preferences, but I digress.)

In any case, you've probably hurt your friends' feelings at least a little -- and probably not on purpose.

That need to downplay the old decision is the same concept behind bullies calling other kids names. If a kid can put someone else down, then he'll be able to feel better about himself -- at least for a short while. Unfortunately, that feeling of satisfaction doesn't last long, so the bully has to keep dispensing insults to maintain any sort of positive feelings towards himself.

How many times do we keep making decisions in order to feel better about ourselves? Buying new jeans, switching jobs, moving across the country... all of these things can be the symptoms of deeper needs.

There has to be a gut check before making these kinds of changes.

  • Why do I want to make this change?
  • Is this decision just a way to make me feel better about myself?
  • Can I still be interested in this decision a year from now? Two years?

You get the idea.

Don't skip this step. It's too easy to jump into something you don't want. But when you've wrestled through these questions, you can make some really positive changes.

For further thoughts on decision-making, check out my post called When to Satisfice and When to Dig Deeper. I pulled together some advice from authors Maria Konnikova and Barry Schwartz (who are both much smarter than me).

What about You?

Made any big changes lately, or thinking about any? I'd love to hear about your process.