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Rationalization is a term of art both psychology and in sociology, though the term is most popularly used in the psychological sense.


An hungry Fox with fierce attack

Sprang on a Vine, but tumbled back,
Nor could attain the point in view,
So near the sky the bunches grew.
As he went off, "They're scurvy stuff,"
Says he, "and not half ripe enough
--And I've more reverence for my tripes

Than to torment them with the gripes."
—"The Fox and the Grapes", Aesop's fables[1]

Rationalization in psychology is often understood to mean making excuses, or post hoc explanations, for some action or for holding onto some cherished belief regardless of evidence. Lying could be considered a conscious form of rationalization. Rationalization may also occur at the unconscious level, commonly known as self-deception. There is evidence that this kind of rationalization can occur immediately after a decision is made.[2][3] In some cases, the lie may come first and bleed into the unconscious, displacing the truth. This sometimes goes under the heading of "drinking one's own Kool-Aid." Rationalization is a way of reducing cognitive dissonance.

The Fox and the Grapes fable is a classic allegory of rationalization. A fox has repeatedly tried and failed to reach grapes hanging on a vine (symbolic for unattainable goals), but gives up and concludes that the grapes must be sour. The fox has employed rationalization either as self-delusion or maintaining pragmatism and a positive self-image.

Post-hoc rationalizations in real life often occur in policymaking. Legislation is passed for a particular reason that is eventually debunked. By then, though, the law has institutionalized support that finds new justifications for why the law should continue to exist. An example is cannabis prohibition, which was originally justified on the grounds that African Americans and Latinos were using cannabis to seduce white women.[4] By the time that blatantly racist arguments such as this became unpopular, they were replaced with other arguments, such as the danger that cannabis would kill brain cells. When science advanced to the point that this hypothesis too was debunked, prohibitionists began arguing that pot caused an "amotivational syndrome". The budgets of numerous bureaucracies such as the National Institute on Drug Abuse and the Drug Enforcement Administration depend on cannabis remaining illegal, so their spokespeople will continually be telling the media and legislative panels that there are justifications for cannabis prohibition that have ongoing relevance and validity.[5]


Rationalization in sociology refers to the favoring of efficiency through quantification and calculation in social transactions over, for example, tradition or custom. It is usually tied into bureaucracy and the process of bureaucratization. Rationalization is considered to be central to the concept of modernity. The concept was first put forth in Max Weber's The Protestant Ethic and the Spirit of Capitalism.[6] What is considered "rational" is often contingent on what is valued by the elite of society. During the modern era, this usually equated to the goals of governing a nation-state. Urban planning serves as an example where what was rational for state purposes diverged with what was rational for locals. State planners preferred uniform designs, usually in a grid pattern, while locals were accustomed to the often odd layout of streets in unplanned areas.[7] Michel Foucault famously expanded on rationalization with his concept of "governmentality" or "governmental rationalism," which traced the evolution of governance from an "art" to a "science" and sought to explain various methods by which modern states promoted "desirable" behavior in their citizens.[8]

See also[edit]

External links[edit]


  1. http://mythfolklore.net/aesopica/phaedrus/43.htm
  2. Jarcho et al. The neural basis of rationalization: cognitive dissonance reduction during decision-making. Soc Cogn Affect Neurosci (2010)
  3. See also Mistakes Were Made (But Not By Me) by Carol Tavris and Elliot Aronson.
  4. "Don't Believe The (Marijuana) Hype". The Fix. January 13, 2014. 
  5. "The Science behind the DEA's Long War on Marijuana". Scientific American. April 19, 2016. 
  6. Rationalization and Bureaucracy
  7. For historical examples and numerous other case studies, see Seeing Like a State by James C. Scott or Rationality and Power: Democracy in Practice by Bent Flyvbjerg.
  8. Rose, Nikolas, O'Malley, Pat and Valverde, Mariana, Governmentality (September, 16 2009). Annual Review of Law and Social Science, Vol. 2, pp. 83-104