Using Rationalization as a Defense Mechanism

Woman has serious conversation with friend while in coffee shop.

SDI Productions/E+/Getty Images

Table of Contents
View All
Table of Contents

Rationalization involves justifying behaviors, thoughts, or feelings using logical explanations. While such explanations sound reasonable, they disguise unacceptable thoughts and don't accurately depict a person’s true feelings and motivations.

In psychology, rationalization is a defense mechanism, which are unconscious strategies people utilize to protect themselves from anxiety or threats to self-esteem. These defense mechanisms operate in various ways to reduce discomfort, often by denying or distorting reality.

When people are faced with feelings or behaviors that challenge their beliefs, they may look for ways to explain these thoughts and alleviate feelings of discomfort. For example, a person who gets a bad grade on a test might rationalize their low score by blaming the professor's teaching style rather than acknowledging their poor study habits.

This article discusses the psychology of rationalization, examples of how it is used, and how to find healthier ways to deal with difficult emotions.

The Psychology of Rationalization

The idea of rationalization as a type of defense mechanism first introduced in 1908 by Ernst Jones and later expanded on as part of the psychoanalytic theories of Sigmund Freud and his daughter Anna Freud. They believed that defense mechanisms worked on an unconsicous level to help protect the mind from feelings of anxiety. 

According to Freud, rationalization allows people to justify their thoughts or behaviors without experiencing conflicts, anxiety, or shame if they face their true motivations.

While many Freudian theories have fallen from favor in psychology, the idea of rationalization has persisted. Later researchers continued to expand on Freud's ideas, proposing that rationalization might not just protect the ego from anxiety, it might also serve adaptive purposes.

By relieving feelings of distress, rationalization allows people to cope with difficult situations that might pose a threat to their well-being. 

Another theory suggests that rationalization might serve another important purpose. According to this explanation, decision-making is complex and rarely relies on a single process. Instead, it often incorporates instinct, norms, habits, reasoning, and other influences. Rationalization might be an attempt to represent all of these processes into a coherent narrative, or what researchers have called "a useful fiction."

While some researchers argue that rationalization can be a rational response, others argue that it can be a detrimental defense mechanism that is associated with worse emotional development and increased antisocial behavior.

Rationalization vs. Lying

While rationalization is similar to lying, there are important distinctions. Lying is a conscious attempt to deceive, while rationalization often occurs partly or primarily outside of conscious awareness. And while both disguise a person's real motives for self-serving purposes, rationalization protects them from being fully aware of their true motivations.

Examples of Rationalization

One of the reasons why rationalization has remained such an enduring concept is the fact that many people can immediately recognize examples of it in their own lives. Rationalization often occurs in a variety of different ways. It may involve:

  • Minimizing the situation (“It’s really not that bad.”)
  • Making excuses (“I didn’t have enough time anyways.”)
  • Blaming others (“It happened because they didn’t do their work on time.”)
  • Making comparisons (“What I did isn’t as bad as what someone else did.”)
  • Explaining away the problem (“Sorry I didn’t return your call, I was just too busy.”)

In Romantic Relationships 

In a romantic relationship, a person might rationalize being disappointed by their partner by blaming outside factors instead of the other person. For example, if your partner canceled dinner plans at the last minute, you might blame their employer or work clients rather than acknowledge that your partner rarely takes their commitments seriously.

Other common examples in relationships include minimizing problematic behaviors, finding ways to justify actions, and making excuses to explain why things happen. For example:

  • A person might get angry and yell at their partner during an argument but then later minimize their behavior and suggest that it wasn't really that bad.
  • A person might stop engaging in a behavior at their partner's request but then replace it with another destructive habit. They might justify this new behavior by saying at least they aren't engaging in the old behavior anymore.
  • A person might make excuses for why they don't fulfill household obligations. For example, they might say they don't have time to cook, clean, or help with the kids because they are busy with work.

In Family Relationships

In a family relationship, a child might rationalize their parents' absence from after-school events by attributing it to being busy with work. This can protect a child from feeling ignored, leaving the child feeling unsupported and neglecting their emotional needs.

Rationalization can take a severe toll on family relationships over time. While it might make the person using this defense mechanism feel better in the short term, it can erode trust and communication between family members.

In the Workplace

In the workplace, a person might rationalize getting passed over for an important promotion by suggesting that they didn’t really want the job in the first place. While this plays a role in protecting the person’s self-esteem, it can hold them back by preventing them from pursing future job advancement opportunities.

Using rationalization can be problematic when a person uses post hoc excuses to justify immoral or unethical behavior. One study found that those with low moral identity were more likely to engage in immoral behavior after using moral rationalization to justify past actions.

Why We Use Rationalization as a Defense Mechanism

There are a variety of reasons why people use rationalization to justify their behaviors:

To Avoid Cognitive Dissonance

The psychology behind rationalization is that it acts as a way to provide logical justifications for unacceptable feelings or behaviors. This is driven by the need people have to maintain a sense of consistency.

People want to believe that they act in accordance with their beliefs and values. When they don't, it creates a state of psychological tension known as cognitive dissonance.

By looking for seemingly rational explanations to justify behavior, people can maintain a sense of consistency in their beliefs, behaviors, and feelings. While these rationalizations misrepresent our true motivations, they protect us from the feelings of shame, guilt, or anxiety we might feel by admitting our true thoughts or behaviors.

To Maintain a Sense of Self

People also want to be able to see themselves in a positive light. Part of this involves being able to think that they act in ways that are consistent and in accordance with their values. Rationalization often serves as a way to maintain this positive outlook on the self.

To Protect Self-Esteem

Rationalization can protect self-esteem, but it does so at a cost. People may be able to better cope with stress in the moment, but it can also lead to further problems down the road. Refusing to acknowledge the truth of the situation can lead to faulty thinking, cognitive biases, and self-deceptions. It prevents people from being able to evaluate their own actions and make changes that can benefit them in the future.

When rationalization becomes a pattern you use to excuse away unhealthy behavior or justify toxic patterns, it can lead to poor choices and unrealistic ways of coping with problems. For example, you might rationalize your partner’s behavior to avoid conflict, but this can deepen the problems in your relationship and contribute to poor communication.

Finding Healthy Ways to Deal With Emotions

If you use rationalization to ease feelings of anxiety or cope with troubling situations, recognize that the use of such defense mechanisms is both common and normal. In many cases, using these types of defenses allows us to alleviate stress in the moment until with are better equipped to emotionally process the situation.

Rationalization can become a problem if you use it excessively to avoid dealing with reality. If you want to find healthier ways to deal with emotions, improve communication, and handle conflict, the following strategies can be helpful:

  • Build emotional awareness: Becoming more aware of what you are feeling in the moment can help you avoid making excuses or hiding from your true motivations. Mindfulness is a practice that can help you become more aware of your thoughts without trying to avoid, judge, or explain them away.
  • Label your emotions: Once you get better at identifying what you are feeling, practice on labeling these thoughts and emotions instead of trying to rationalize them. Research has found that simply identifying and labeling your emotions can help reduce the intensity of those feelings. This may help you process what you are feeling without becoming overwhelmed.
  • Show yourself acceptance and compassion: Instead of criticizing yourself or feeling ashamed about distressing thoughts or behaviors, work toward self-acceptance. Self-compassion can help you treat yourself with more kindness and understanding, even when you are dealing with difficult situations.
  • Find support: When you find yourself trying to rationalize something, consider seeking out the support of a friend, family member, or other encouraging individuals. They can help you talk through the problem and think of ways of coping without trying to make excuses.
  • Reframe how you think: If you notice yourself rationalizing a situation, consider changing your perspective. This strategy involves thinking about alternative explanations and intentionally trying to take a different or even more positive viewpoint when approaching a problem.

Rationalization is something that most people engage in from time to time. While it can have its benefits, it can also lead to poor accountability and bad decisions. Not dealing with your real motivations can also limit your personal growth.

Because rationalization is often used as a tool to avoid emotions, finding healthier ways of coping can be helpful if you find yourself using this defense mechanism too often. Building self-awareness, learning to identify emotions, and practicing emotional acceptance are a few strategies that can be helpful.

If you think rationalization might be holding you back and preventing you from acknowledging reality, consider talking to a mental health professional. By working with a therapist, you'll be better able to identify rationalization and develop better ways to cope with difficult emotions.

8 Sources
Verywell Mind uses only high-quality sources, including peer-reviewed studies, to support the facts within our articles. Read our editorial process to learn more about how we fact-check and keep our content accurate, reliable, and trustworthy.
  1. Cushman F. Rationalization is rational. Behav Brain Sci. 2019;43:e28. doi:10.1017/S0140525X19001730

  2. Knoll M, Starrs CJ, Perry JC. Rationalization(Defense mechanism). In: Zeigler-Hill V, Shackelford TK, eds. Encyclopedia of Personality and Individual Differences. Springer International Publishing; 2020:4301-4305. doi:10.1007/978-3-319-24612-3_1419

  3. Freud S. The Neuro-Psychoses of Defence. Standard Edition of the Complete Psychological Works of Sigmund Freud. 1894;3:41-60. Psychoanalytic Electronic Publishing.

  4. Brody S, Costa RM. Rationalization is a suboptimal defense mechanism associated with clinical and forensic problems. Behav Brain Sci. 2020;43:e31. doi:10.1017/S0140525X19002073

  5. Mulder LB, van Dijk E. Moral rationalization contributes more strongly to escalation of unethical behavior among low moral identifiers than among high moral identifiers. Front Psychol. 2020;10:2912. doi:10.3389/fpsyg.2019.02912

  6. Jarcho JM, Berkman ET, Lieberman MD. The neural basis of rationalization: cognitive dissonance reduction during decision-making. Soc Cogn Affect Neurosci. 2011;6(4):460-467. doi:10.1093/scan/nsq054

  7. Quilty-Dunn J. Rationalization is irrational and self-serving, but useful. Behav Brain Sci. 2020;43:e42. doi:10.1017/S0140525X19002218

  8. Torre JB, Lieberman MD. Putting feelings into words: affect labeling as implicit emotion regulation. Emotion Review. 2018;10(2):116-124. doi:10.1177/1754073917742706

By Kendra Cherry, MSEd
Kendra Cherry, MS, is a psychosocial rehabilitation specialist, psychology educator, and author of the "Everything Psychology Book."