Rationalization: Defense Mechanism Or Logical Fallacy?

Medically reviewed by Laura Angers Maddox, NCC, LPC
Updated February 26, 2024by BetterHelp Editorial Team

Rationalization often allows humans to justify unreasonable behavior by providing logically-sound reasons for the behavior. In psychoanalytic theory, rationalization is generally considered an ego defense or method through which a person can keep their self-esteem and sense of well-being against internal conflicts. Rationalization is one of many defense mechanisms humans can use to maintain stability in their perspective and behavior. Others may include humor, compensation, displacement, and suppression. It’s possible for these defense mechanisms to be used healthily, but they can also cause additional problems when used improperly. Online therapy can help you look into your defense mechanisms and ensure they are helping rather than hurting you.

Do you rationalize unwanted behavior?

What are defense mechanisms?

Defense mechanisms are generally unconscious mental processes that can enable the mind to reach acceptable solutions to problems it cannot resolve in a typical manner. They may also be semi-conscious processes, wherein the person uses conscious effort for a part, but not all, of the defense mechanism.  

The term "defense mechanism" was first used by Sigmund Freud in 1894 to support a popular psychoanalytic hypothesis that there may be forces in the human mind that battle and oppose each other. His daughter, Anna Freud, further analyzed the concept of defense mechanisms and expanded on her father's theories throughout the early-to-mid 20th century. Since the work of the Freud family, the number of identified defense mechanisms has generally increased. Although the popularity of psychoanalytic theory has largely declined alongside the rise of scientific integrity in the psychological sciences, defense mechanisms often remain a frequently studied topic in psychology.

Modern research usually focuses on the methods through which defense mechanisms maintain or restore psychological homeostasis. The term "homeostasis" normally refers to a relatively stable balance between interdependent elements. In medicine, it is typically used to describe the body's tendency to self-control and balance the separate bodily functions that allow humans to function. In psychology, it often refers to the mind's ability to maintain or restore stability during internal or external conflict.

Today's understanding of defense mechanisms may be closely linked to the study of cognitive dissonance. Cognitive dissonance can occur when a person's beliefs do not align with their actions. Defense mechanisms can help restore the balance when dissonance occurs.

For example, consider a man named Mike who takes great pride in regularly donating to his favorite charity, but suddenly loses his job and is unable to make his regular donation. Mike considers himself charitable and wants to contribute (the belief), but his unemployment makes donation impossible without risking his well-being (the action).

Mike likely feels some distress, caused by cognitive dissonance, at the thought of missing his donation. He may feel as though he’s not acting in a manner that aligns with his typical standards. Let's look at a few common defense mechanisms and how Mike might apply those to relieve the dissonance-based distress.


As a defense mechanism, compensation may allow a person to replace a perceived deficit in one area by exerting extra effort in another area. In Mike's case, he is unable to donate money, so he may try to make up for it in other ways. Mike might volunteer for a few hours a week, giving his time instead of his money, or he might decide to double next year's donation to make up for this year's deficit.


Displacement can be a common defense mechanism, although displacement tends to be more harmful than other mechanisms. Displacement usually involves transferring negative feelings from one person, thing, or situation to another. In this case, Mike might be moody, withdrawn, or angry around his romantic partner after finding out he cannot make his donation. Mike may be displacing his negative feelings from the reality of his financial situation onto his partner. While displacement can relieve stress, the chance for further issues from misplaced anger or frustration is often significant.


Humor can be a frequently employed defense mechanism that is generally not harmful to the people around the person using it. In Mike's case, he may joke or tell a funny story about his former place of employment or fellow employees. Using levity to address distress can make overcoming the actual problem (for Mike, loss of employment) much easier to handle.


Suppression typically relies on consciously choosing to block ideas or impulses that are undesirable. It is generally distinct from the much-debated concept of repression, wherein a person may unconsciously block memories that induce distress. A person who is suppressing their feelings is usually applying a conscious, deliberate effort. In Mike's case, he would likely go out of his way to avoid thinking about his favorite charity, his unemployment, or other factors related to his distress. He would likely push those thoughts out of his mind when he thinks about missing his donation.


Rationalization is generally defined as the ability to apply a satisfying logical reason for a specific action or behavior.

A logical chain of reasoning can offer the mind a way to justify behavior that is not aligned with a person's typical standards or beliefs. For Mike, rationalization is likely the most apparent defense mechanism he can use. He can logically and rationally justify not donating because he has lost his job, and it can be illogical to donate money to organizations if it would threaten his livelihood. Mike can rationalize his actions by telling himself he will make a donation when his income returns, which is logical.


Is rationalization harmful?

Like most defense mechanisms, rationalization can be beneficial if used correctly in moderation. Some defense mechanisms, such as displacement, projection, conversion defense mechanism, and passive-aggression, are often harmful, even when used sparingly. Rationalization, however, can be extremely helpful in some situations and extremely harmful in others.

Going back to our example of Mike, he is not likely to be harmed by choosing to rationalize his situation. Rationalization can work well in his case because Mike is faced with logical challenges beyond his control (a sudden loss of employment). He can quickly alleviate his distress by recognizing that his desire to donate is logically inconsistent with his lack of a stable income.

In other cases, though, rationalization can be harmful. Concern can arise when a person makes broad leaps in judgment that, while they may seem logical to the person, appear as a weak rational argument to others. For example, consider a woman named Jessie, who was texting while driving and failed to notice a pedestrian crossing the road. Jessie looks up just in time and slams on the brakes, narrowly avoiding the pedestrian. The pedestrian, although startled and shaken, is unharmed. Jessie mutters something to herself about "pedestrians wandering into the road whenever they want" and continues her drive.

In Jessie's example, the reason for the near miss is apparent: she was texting while driving. Jessie is likely experiencing cognitive dissonance. Her belief (she is a safe and courteous driver) may be out of sync with her actions (she nearly hit a pedestrian). To relieve that distress, Jessie rationalizes the incident by concluding that the pedestrian was crossing the street in an unsafe manner. While this may be logically true, an impartial observer would likely note that Jessie's texting while driving can be considered a much more significant logical antecedent to the event.

Jessie's case can be a small example of the dangers of rationalization. Almost every situation has some logical "out" a person could use to justify their actions, even if that logic would seem inconsistent to others. Because of this, it is theoretically possible to rationalize any behavior, from minor slights to war crimes and genocides. This is supported by literature describing the prominence of rationalization among those diagnosed with narcissistic personality disorder, a condition often characterized by a lack of empathy and consideration for others.

iStock/Kateryna Onyshchuk
Do you rationalize unwanted behavior?

How can online therapy help?

Defense mechanisms can include both unconscious and conscious components, which can make them very hard for one to analyze by themselves. Online therapy can help you sort out the parts of your reasoning you clearly understand from the parts you don't. Plus, it can empower you to get help from a licensed professional at a time that fits your schedule and from a location where you feel comfortable. If you're concerned that you may not be using defense mechanisms appropriately, including rationalization, a therapist can help by using empirically supported techniques, like psychodynamic therapy, to help you address your concerns. Psychodynamic therapy, like other well-understood therapies, can be just as effective when administered online as in person.


Rationalization and other defense mechanisms can be a normal, healthy part of our daily lives. Defense mechanisms may be necessary to reduce the distress caused by cognitive dissonance and other factors. However, while rationalization and other defense mechanisms may have their place, they can also be misused. Rationalization can be especially dangerous when used excessively because almost every person will be able to find some rational reason for their behavior, even if the logical connection is weak. Maintaining a healthy balance of defense mechanisms often requires introspection and deep consideration of the reasoning behind certain behaviors. A licensed therapist, whether in person or online, can help you investigate your defense mechanisms and ensure they are healthy.
Learn how your defenses may hold you back
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