New Study Shows Just How Much We Rationalize And Lie To Ourselves

Published March 7, 2018
Published March 7, 2018

A newly published study shows our "psychological immune system" will rationalize changes we don't actually agree with so that we can tell ourselves we're ok with how things are.

Trump Swearing In

Wikimedia CommonsDonald Trump takes the oath of office to become president in Washington, D.C. on Jan. 20, 2017. A new study suggests that many Americans rationalized the Trump presidency by changing their opinions of him for the better once he took office.

It’s not rational — it’s rationalization. So says a new study published in Psychological Science revealing how our outlook on a big change shifts once that change actually takes effect.

The findings confirmed the idea that people tend to rationalize a policy — or even a presidency — once it becomes a reality and express a greater approval for it than they did when it was just an anticipated reality.

All That’s Interesting spoke with the study’s author, Dr. Kristin Laurin, an Assistant Professor of Psychology at the University of British Columbia.

One of Laurin’s motivations to look into the rationalization of policies in the first place stemmed from previous work she’d done on how people rationalize.

“The general conclusion was always that people rationalize things they’re stuck with — things they can’t fight,” she said. “Even when you know for sure that something is going to happen, or that a policy is going to take effect, it’s still different once it actually does.”

Because once something becomes a reality, be it a new job or a new law or a new president, that’s when you’re stuck with it.

The research consisted of three field studies. The first surveyed participants before and after a ban was placed on the selling of plastic water bottles in San Francisco and found that the group surveyed after the ban had a more positive attitude toward it than the group who was surveyed about the ban before it went into practice.

The second field study considered several hundred people living in Ontario who had previously indicated that they were smokers and measured their reaction to a new law in Ontario that banned smoking in parks and on restaurant patios.

Well before the ban, the smokers gave estimates of how much they smoked in the affected areas. Then, one fraction of those same smokers was asked to give a second estimate of their smoking frequency in the affected areas just before the ban went into effect while another fraction of the smokers was asked to give a second estimate just after the ban.

Those re-surveyed just before the ban generally did not change their initial estimates while those re-surveyed just after the ban generally did. This suggests that those re-surveyed after the ban may have rationalized by acting as though the ban didn’t affect them all that much anyway.

“The point of rationalization is to make yourself feel better about something that seems like it could cause you problems or harm,” explained Laurin.

The third study surveyed more than 600 Americans on their attitudes about the Trump presidency at two points before his inauguration (once in mid-December and once in mid-January) and then surveyed participants once again in the three days afterward.

As was the case with the first two studies, participants reported more positive attitudes about Trump after the inauguration than they had before. This included participants who preferred a different candidate for president and/or who viewed his actual performance at the inauguration as negative.

“Participants were nearly twice as likely to report more positive attitudes than more negative attitudes in the wake of the inauguration,” Laurin stated.

In addition to the public’s rationalizations about policy makers, Laurin suggested that those same policy makers themselves make widespread use of rationalizations albeit in a slightly different way.

Laurin explained that as a policy maker, the big issue is likely the “need to feel like you yourself made the right decision in choosing to implement that policy.”

It’s what Laurin calls post-decision dissonance. As she put it, “Once you’ve made a decision, you feel a certain amount of pressure to align your attitudes with that decision, so that you feel like you’re a coherent person.”

So, whether you’re a policy maker, a smoker, or anyone else, what are the potential pros and cons when it comes to this human inclination to rationalize?

The positives have to do with an individual’s own well-being. If a policy you don’t like takes effect, “you’re going to be less distressed about it,” said Laurin.

On the other hand, “the negative consequences are complacency,” she said, adding, “If you rationalize something bad, you’re going to be less likely to fight against it.”

Next, read about the psychological revelations that came out of the infamous Stanford Prison Experiment. Then, have a look at 32 Donald Trump quotes that you need to see to believe.

Kara Goldfarb
Kara Goldfarb is a writer living in New York City.