Rationalization: Defense Mechanism Or Logical Fallacy

By BetterHelp Editorial Team|Updated July 11, 2022
CheckedMedically Reviewed By Lauren Guilbeault, LMHC

For things to make sense, they have to be rational. As such, it seems that “rationalization” would be a good thing – making sense of things. In psychology and logic, however, the term describes something bad.

After a little thought, that makes more sense. Think about it: something either is rational or it isn’t. “Rationalization” uses the root “rational” and makes it into a verb. “Rationalization” then, means “making something rational,” which is an oxymoron.

Indeed, in both fields – logic and psychology – “rationalization” means trying to fit a logical explanation to something that doesn’t make sense. People who employ rationalization to explain something that they don’t like or don’t understand will often come up with plausible but unlikely explanations for things because it is easier than learning the truth behind a confusing or upsetting event or facing the responsibility of inappropriate action or lifestyle.

But, what is rationalization as a defense mechanism? How does it work? How is rationalization as a defense mechanism different from rationalization as a logical fallacy? What do you do if you or someone you know is using rationalization to avoid confronting the truth? This article will take a deeper look at logical fallacies and defense mechanisms, and more specifically at rationalization in both of these contexts. Hopefully, by the end of this article, you will be able to identify and confront rationalization when you see it in your life or help other people confront it in theirs.

Rationalization As A Logical Fallacy

Struggling With Shutting Down When Faced With Confrontation?

To start off the discussion of rationalization as a logical fallacy, let us first briefly review the concept of logical fallacies.

Logical Fallacies, at their most innocent, are trains of thought or argument that can seem convincing but that don’t make sense. There are lots of logical fallacies that we may accidentally make when we present arguments or disagree with another person’s arguments. If you ever assumed that one thing caused something else simply because one thing happened after the other, you committed a logical fallacy. If you ever disagreed with someone, not because of their argument but because you disliked something about their personality, like how they dressed, you committed a logical fallacy.

At their worst, logical fallacies are things that people employ on purpose to sway an audience despite the weakness of their argument. If you’ve ever heard someone suggest that taking action will inescapably lead to a long chain of terrible consequences, that person committed a logical fallacy. If you’ve ever heard anyone take an idea and then represent it in new terms and attacked that argument instead of the original, that person committed a logical fallacy.

Whether someone believes in their use of rationalization as a logical fallacy, or whether they deliberately use rationalization as a logical fallacy, it can be dangerous. As mentioned in the introduction, rationalization as a logical fallacy is when we try to explain an event or action that we don’t like or don’t understand through a series of seemingly plausible steps.

People often do this when something happens that they are strongly opposed to and it’s easier to blame a large system than it is to examine smaller events or trends. Suppose that someone works for a small-town hardware store. The local hardware store gets run out of business by a “big-box store.” The individual may say that the hardware store closed because their owners took bribes from representatives of the big box store. Whether or not the individual believes this plausible but unlikely explanation, it allows the individual to combat suggestions that the local store was run out of business for more likely reasons like high prices, inconvenient location, or poor service. The individual doesn’t want to believe that the small-town hardware store that they had loyalty to and worked hard for could lose a fair fight to the big-box store that they see as faceless and uncaring. Instead of facing this very real possibility, they subscribe to the story that the owner of the hardware store sold out.

Rationalization As A Defense Mechanism

Just as we briefly reviewed logical fallacies before discussing rationalization as a logical fallacy, let us now briefly review defense mechanisms before looking at rationalization defense mechanism examples.

In psychology, defense mechanisms are employed by the subconscious to protect it from dealing with more difficult thoughts or feelings. This makes defense mechanisms different from logical fallacies in that someone may deliberately commit a logical fallacy. When we employ defense mechanisms it is not a deliberate action, but one that our minds employ on their behalf. This also makes defense mechanisms more difficult to confront. If someone employs a logical fallacy, deliberately or otherwise, you may be able to argue them on it by pointing out that their line of thinking doesn’t add up. If someone employs a defense mechanism, they are less likely to give it up simply because you pointed it out to them.

Rationalization as a defense mechanism is similar to rationalization as a logical fallacy. It involves attempting to justify an event or action that doesn’t make sense, or that is known to be harmful by describing the event or action as the result of a plausible system or chain of events.

People are likely to do this after doing something that they know that they shouldn’t have. Suppose someone spends much of their income on alcohol. This person may say that it is not their fault that they abuse alcohol. They may say that they abuse alcohol and have no money because alcohol companies target advertising to low-income people. This isn’t entirely untrue. Some alcohol advertising is aimed at low-income people. Pointing this out allows the individual to attempt to justify their alcohol abuse and low standard of living by painting themselves as the victim of a predatory industry. This line of thinking allows the individual to attempt to avoid taking responsibility for their drinking and low standard of living. It also allows them to see drinking as a problem that is larger than themselves and one that they needn’t bother trying to overcome.

Combatting Rationalization

As mentioned above, rationalization as a defense mechanism is more dangerous than rationalization as a logical fallacy because logical fallacies are more susceptible to logic.

If you wanted to help the individual who got fired from the hardware store, you might be able to show him statistics showing that local hardware stores across the country see falling revenue and that big-box stores are seeing rising profits. This might allow him to face the fact that maybe the big-box store was able to run the local hardware store out of business through lower prices or better service and not by under-handed dealings. Not only might this allow the individual to forgive the owner of the hardware store, but it might also make the individual feel more at ease with themselves and encourage them to find another job.

On the other hand, if you wanted to help the individual spend less money drinking and deal with other aspects of their lives, you may introduce them to a friend of yours who has a low-paying job but who doesn’t drink. You might tell the individual the story of you or someone you knew who improved their lot in life by drinking less and spending the money on other things. You might point out that there is also alcohol advertising aimed at wealthy people but that not all wealthy people abuse alcohol. Despite all of these valid points, your arguments might not make a difference. The individual has made up their minds that their drinking problem and low standard of living are an inescapable result of their socio-economic status and the evil minds of big corporations.

It’s important not to blame yourself if you can’t help someone get past their rationalization defense mechanism. It’s also important not to argue this point too often or too heatedly. You are likely more valuable as a concerned friend than as an angry debate partner. But what can you do for someone who continues an unhealthy lifestyle or gets into trouble because of a rationalization defense mechanism?

Finding Help

Struggling With Shutting Down When Faced With Confrontation?

Because defense mechanisms are formed in the subconscious mind, it can be difficult for an individual to accept that their rationalization isn’t a logical explanation, it’s a wall between them and the truth. Sometimes it takes the work of a professional therapist to help someone to see that they are employing a defense mechanism at all. Only then can the individual face the truth and understand that their line of thinking was allowing them to harm themselves or those around them and learn to become better.

It can be difficult to recognize defense mechanisms that you employ in your own life, but if any of the thoughts or behaviors described in this article remind you of yourself, you may be employing a rationalization defense mechanism that may be keeping you from living your best life. “Shutting down” a defense mechanism can be difficult and confronting the world that lies beyond can be even harder. You shouldn’t have to go it alone, however. To learn how you can be connected with a licensed counselor online to help you deal with a potential rationalization defense mechanism problem, visit https://www.betterhelp.com/start.

Helpful mental health resources delivered to your inbox
For Additional Help & Support With Your Concerns
Speak with a Licensed Therapist
The information on this page is not intended to be a substitution for diagnosis, treatment, or informed professional advice. You should not take any action or avoid taking any action without consulting with a qualified mental health professional. For more information, please read our terms of use.