Reason and Rationalization
What we conceive as a reason for a decision may be an after the fact rationalization. Recently, I read an article about a woman who was a gifted child. The article went on to say that gifted children often don’t excel as people expect them to because they don’t learn to deal with difficulties, setbacks or failures. The women in question had moved back in with her parents during a difficult pregnancy and continued to lives there for a few years afterwards. She had often heard the remark that she had ‘not lived up to her potential’. Her reason was she never learned to deal with failure and the fear of not excelling, when she always had, was the reason. She then watched peers she considered ordinary achieve personal and professional success. The article goes on to say that not all gifted children fail to succeed. You can read it all here. I’ll get to my point in a minute.
Keep in mind that at the same time, I’ve been reading Scott Adams’s Win Bigly, a book basically about persuasion and Donald Trump as a Master Persuader. Adams says we like to think we make logical decisions but actually most of our decisions are emotional and we then look for a bunch of reasons to explain why we did what we did. Reasons that support our choice in a positive way. No one is going to admit that did something for the wrong reason. Not even to ourselves. Or only in the rarest of cases. Because that would just be confusing. So we rationalize.
I found myself applying this to the article I’d just read. It was a coincidence, based on connecting what I’d read in Win Bigly and what I was reading. Nothing to do with this person in the article other than timing. But what if this was a rationalization? A way of explaining away the choice that was made?
The interesting thing about Win Bigly is you start to see things differently. I come from a world where facts or claims have to be corroborated. You learn to question what people are saying and to look for the Why. Win Bigly goes beyond to explain why facts don’t matter in matters of persuasion. It’s a brain twister.
The Real Reason
Before I get to my point, and I do have one, let me preface it by saying we all do this. I don’t know the person in the article. This is not directed at her. This is simply to illustrate how we see things in a way that uses selected reasons to support our choices in the most flattering and/or reassuring way. So what if our reasons to explain a decision are not the real reason? And are, in fact, rationalizations.
What if the person in the article did not live up to her potential because of another reason. A less ‘acceptable’ reason: laziness, stamina, focus, drive, disinterest. Again, I’m not saying this is the case or labeling this one person. We all do this. We all give ourselves self-supporting reasons that are–I suspect–usually external (not our fault) and reassuring (yes we did the right thing and/or we had no choice).
Here’s another example. For several years I tried for the same promotion. It never worked. My reasons: I was not properly mentored, they changed the interview formula, I was unlucky to always be on the first day of interviews (people on the final days usually had some extra insight), I had no friend in high places.
This great explanation (read: rationalization) takes it all out of my hands. Fate has ruled against me. What can I do? But here’s a more honest set of reasons that don’t make me look great and don’t preclude the others, but do give a more complete picture. I didn’t want the extra hours that went with this position; I worried about being named in a department that would drastically increase my commute; I’m not big on micromanaging and didn’t want to deal with everyone’s problems. I didn’t want to do insane hours in a division that would have given me much more valuable experience and consequently set me up as a better candidate. To sum it up: I didn’t want it badly enough. I was focused on the wrong thing: prestige.
In Win Bigly, Scott Adams explains that we all live in our own version of reality. At first it sounded incredible. How can we possibly agree on anything? Now I’m really starting to believe it.
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