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Rationalization (Defense Introduction

Defense mechanisms are automatic psychological
Megan Knoll1, Claire J. Starrs2 and J. Christopher processes that protect an individual from emo-
Perry2 tional conflicts or awareness of internal or external
Department of Educational and Counselling stressors. They impact individuals’ reactions to
Psychology, McGill University, Montreal, QC, conflicts and stressors (American Psychiatric
Canada Association 2013). Defenses can be arranged hier-
Department of Psychiatry, McGill University at archically based on their usual level of adaptive-
the Jewish General Hospital, Montreal, QC, ness. Within the hierarchy, defenses are grouped
Canada into different levels based on common functions.
These levels include the psychotic (0), action (1),
major image-distorting (2), disavowal and
Synonyms autistic-fantasy (3), minor image-distorting (4),
neurotic (5b), hysterical (5a), obsessional (6),
Lying; Lying to oneself; Justifying; Making and high adaptive (7) defenses (Perry 2014).
excuses; Bullshitting Rationalization falls into the disavowal level
along with neurotic denial and projection. Dis-
avowal defenses allow an individual to uncon-
sciously deny or refuse to acknowledge the
existence of certain stressful aspects of reality or
internal experience (Perry 2014; Perry and Coo-
Rationalization is a disavowal defense mechanism
per 1989). Emotional conflicts and internal or
which permits an individual to deal with emo-
external stressors are therefore managed via this
tional conflicts, or internal or external stressors,
lack of awareness. For rationalization specifically,
by devising reassuring or self-serving but incor-
this lack of awareness is made possible through a
rect explanations for his or her own or others’
reinterpretation of reality (Juni 1997). An individ-
thoughts, actions, or feelings, which cover up
ual using rationalization is usually unaware or
other motives (Perry 1990).
minimally aware of the true, underlying motive.

Entry to appear in Zeigler-Hill, V. & Shackelford,

T.K. (Eds.), Encyclopedia of Personality and Individual
Differences. Springer Science and Business Media.

# Springer International Publishing AG 2016

V. Zeigler-Hill, T.K. Shackelford (eds.), Encyclopedia of Personality and Individual Differences,
DOI 10.1007/978-3-319-28099-8_1419-1
2 Rationalization (Defense Mechanism)

Rationalization statements, it is reasonable to identify it as a

rationalization. Rationalization is employed
History Ernest Jones first introduced the psycho- because it protects the individual by keeping
analytic term rationalization in 1908 to describe them unaware, or minimally aware, of their true
how individuals make sense of their unconscious motive (e.g., avoiding feeling shame) by covering
motivations. He posited rationalization as provid- it up; it may be described as “lying to oneself”
ing a plausible but false explanation to justify (Perry 1990).
one’s irrational acts to others. When justifying Rationalization has some similarity to the
such acts to oneself, Jones (1908) used the term defense of intellectualization, which is the exces-
evasion; in contemporary psychoanalytic sive use of abstract thinking to avoid or minimize
schemes, however, rationalizing refers to justify- experiencing disturbing feelings. While both
ing acts both to others and oneself (Perry 1990). these defense mechanisms protect the individual
from unpleasant or unacceptable aspects of real-
Function Rationalization functions to distance ity, intellectualization does not distort facts
the individual from motives that may be difficult through a reinterpretation of situations or motives,
to acknowledge by substituting more socially whereas rationalization does. Intellectualization
acceptable reasons for one’s actions (Perry 1990). uses abstract thinking to detach oneself from feel-
ings, while rationalization uses excuses and alter-
Identifying Rationalization may present itself in native reasons to cover up facts and motives
the form of overelaborations to describe behavior, (Perry 1990).
or alternatively, it may involve evasions of per- Rationalization is also similar to the defense of
sonal responsibility by referencing plausible, projection, which is the attribution of one’s own
external reasons for failures. Rationalization is unacknowledged feelings, impulses, or thoughts
often occurring when an individual omits refer- to others. Both of these defenses help the individ-
ence to personal motives; when explanations pos- ual to disavow true motives and actions. However,
sess a “conning” quality; when misdeeds, failings, projection involves the added step of mis-
or faults are described without apparent anxiety or attributing the motives to others, whereas ratio-
shame; or when there is a disavowal of responsi- nalization is mainly concerned with disavowal of
bility for antisocial thoughts, actions, or feelings motivations from oneself (Perry 1990).
(Perry 1990). Ironically, a rationalization might be
introduced by phrases like “to tell you the Examples The following examples include
truth. . .” or “honestly. . .” or “I know you’re not excerpts from research interviews and psycho-
going to believe this but. . .” Additionally, a con- therapy sessions where rationalization has been
ning or histrionic tone of voice may be a clue rated using the Defense Mechanism Rating Scale
indicating the presence of rationalization. (Perry 1990).
In the following excerpt, the interviewer
Discrimination Rationalization is similar to (I) inquires about previous experiences in therapy.
lying as they both involve the concealing of true The patient (P) discusses his resistance to seeing a
motives through the use of self-serving, incorrect psychiatrist after a previous suicide attempt and
explanations. However, they differ in that lying is rationalizes his ex-girlfriend’s use of psychiatric
a fully conscious act, whereas rationalization services as a reason to not seek out services
operates partly or largely outside of conscious- himself.
ness. The boundary between these two can be
indistinct, as in the everyday construct of P: . . .but at the time, she was seeing a psychiatrist
bullshitting, that is, building oneself up by cause she’s a very, very, very bad hypochondriac
and she constantly thinks that she has a problem
claiming half-truths and fanciful elaborations [. . .] and I didn’t want to go and see a psychiatrist
(Frankfurt 2005). However, whenever the individ- for the simple fact that [Rationalization begins]I
ual appears to believe at least part of the incorrect didn’t need two of us at the psychiatrist at the same
Rationalization (Defense Mechanism) 3

time. I wanted to just be there for her instead of me in the act. It was really a selfless act. You know,
going off and trying to settle my own problems ‘cause for me a dollar here, and a dollar there is
[ends]. not going to change my life [ends] (Perry and
Presniak 2012).
In this excerpt, the therapist (T) confronts a
patient (P) about missing a session to go purchase In the following excerpt, the interviewer
a new phone. The patient becomes angry and (I) inquires about a past break-up. The patient
accuses the therapist of not being authentic before (P) rationalizes his understanding of his
rationalizing that the missed session was not a ex-girlfriend’s extended time spent away prior to
function of his feelings toward the therapist. their separation. It functions to prevent him from
looking at other reasons that relate to himself.
I: You’re saying that the relationship is less
important than going and buying a phone. P: [Rationalization beings] I think she was just more
P: [Rationalization begins] No. That’s not what I’m focused on her career and her own personal
saying. I’m saying that I see you twice a week and goals and the relationship, which is
I have no phone in my apartment and that I can understandable, just took a back seat. You know,
see you at any other time of the week or, you the relationship was good but she was not going
know, I’m going to see you next week or the week to change any plans she had to accommodate it
after. [ends].
I: I’m, I’m not on call. We set up appointments.
P: Yeah, so, I’m here now. It doesn’t say anything.
Correlation with Health In a recent study com-
I: Well, it does to me.
P: But it doesn’t to me and that’s, that’s more paring women with breast cancer to healthy con-
important because I am the one that did it [ends]. trols, rationalization was used by 77% of healthy
mothers. It also contributed to a relatively high
In this excerpt, the interviewer (I) and the sub- proportion (8.6%) of their overall defensive func-
ject (S) are discussing the tips the subject makes tioning (Perry et al. 2015).
while working as a server. Earlier, the subject When considering clinical populations, a study
described a scenario where he gave customers conducted among adults with borderline person-
free coffee in an effort to be repaid in tip money. ality disorder, antisocial personality disorder, or
bipolar type II affective disorder examined the
S: I don’t care if I make fifteen cents on a dollar, relationship between the use of defenses and psy-
I make fifteen percent. That’s all I think about. I’m chosocial symptomology and behaviors (Perry
not worried about anything else. And those are
good points, man. Waiters make good points and Cooper 1989). The use of disavowal defenses
[. . .]. (rationalization, denial, or projection) was associ-
ated with observer-rated symptoms of depression,
anxiety, hypomania, alcohol abuse, and antisocial
I: That’s why when you got sort of the possible behavior over a one- and two-year follow-up.
conflict of interest with the coffee, because the When considering self-reported symptomology,
likelihood is what you’ve done is you’ve knocked
this group of defenses was only associated with
five dollars off the bill. . ..
S: Hoping to get five dollars in my pocket. measures of anger and hostility. This finding sug-
I: Well, the chances they will appreciate the service gests that while disavowal defenses may protect
and. . .. the individual from awareness of most of their
S: So what would it be, it would be about seventy-
symptoms and problematic behaviors, they do
five more cents for me, an extra dollar. That’s
what it would work out to. Actually, yeah, not effectively hide them from others. In addition,
seventy-five cents. You’re right. [Rationalization the study found associations between the use of
begins] But you know what, when I was doing it, disavowal defenses and poor psychosocial and
I mean, I know that. I wasn’t even thinking
global functioning (Perry and Cooper 1989);
about – I won’t say – I was thinking about let’s
serve them, you know and if that meant, yeah, a again suggesting that while these defenses may
better tip, it also meant a better name for the protect the individual from awareness of poor
house. Okay, it wasn’t just for me. I wasn’t selfish
4 Rationalization (Defense Mechanism)

functioning, they do not actually translate to true reasons for thoughts, actions, or feelings. As
healthful functioning. an individual becomes more willing to tolerate the
When relating rationalization to specific diag- anxiety of not distorting the facts, they may divert
noses, one study compared the defense use to detaching themselves from the affective com-
between individuals with dysthymia and individ- ponent of the conflict via the excessive use of
uals with panic disorder (Bloch et al. 1993). Those abstract thinking. Thus, while now acknowledg-
with dysthymia demonstrated higher use of dis- ing reality, they still protect themselves from the
avowal defenses when compared to those with uncomfortable associated feelings.
panic disorder. No associations were identified
when looking at rationalization as an individual Future Directions Considering the associations
defense, however. Another study examined the between the use of disavowal defenses and health
potential role of defenses in personality disorders and adaptiveness (Perry and Cooper 1989), future
(Perry et al. 2013). Rationalization was found to research should continue to explore these relation-
be among the most prevalent defenses present in ships, looking at associations with individual
all examined personality disorders (schizotypal, defenses such as rationalization. Direction of cau-
borderline, antisocial, and narcissistic). Other sality, potential interventions, and associations
researchers have theorized that rationalization among community and nonclinical populations
may be the major defense operating among indi- should all be explored. Additionally, more
viduals with hypochondriasis. For example, research may be needed to better understand dis-
Holmes (1981) suggested that physical symptoms avowal defenses resistance to psychotherapy
and complaints typical of those with hypochon- treatment, especially given the documented rela-
driasis are rationalizations of their experienced tionship between the decreased use of disavowal
anxiety; in this way they are able to acknowledge defenses and improved functioning and
their anxiety while disavowing the psychological symptomology (Perry and Bond 2012).

Changes in Psychotherapy and Develop- Conclusion

ment Other studies have examined changes in
the use of defenses over the course of long-term Rationalization is a disavowal defense which pro-
therapy. One recent study demonstrated that indi- tects the individual from emotional conflicts and
viduals with depressive, anxious, and personality internal or external stressors by devising incorrect
disorders’ use of less adaptive defenses decreased, but plausible explanations for thoughts, actions,
while their use of more adaptive defenses and feelings. The term was first used in psycho-
increased (Perry and Bond 2012). Interestingly, dynamic theory in 1908 by Ernest Jones and has
however, an exception to this trend was demon- been studied as one of the several defense mech-
strated by the disavowal defenses. Although not anisms since. When examining rationalization at
significant, there appeared to be a trend for dis- the level of disavowal defenses, associations with
avowal defenses to increase with time. Despite an symptoms, functioning, and disorders have been
association between decreased frequency of dis- demonstrated. This is indicative of the importance
avowal defenses and improved functioning and of future research in this domain of defenses.
symptoms (Perry and Bond 2012), it appears that
this level of defenses is somewhat resistant to
treatment. Cross-References

Defensive Shifts It has been suggested that there ▶ Defense Mechanisms

may be a shift over time in the use of rationaliza- ▶ Intellectualization (Defense Mechanism)
tion to the use of intellectualization. In rationali- ▶ Projection (Defense Mechanism)
zation, there is an unconscious cover-up of the ▶ Psychoanalysis
Rationalization (Defense Mechanism) 5

▶ Psychodynamic Perspective Perry, J. C. (1990). Defense mechanism rating scales:

▶ Psychodynamic Processes Manual (5th ed.). Boston: Cambridge University.
Perry, J. C. (2014). Anomalies and specific functions in the
▶ Unconscious clinical identification of defense mechanisms. Journal
▶ Undoing (Defense Mechanism) of Clinical Psychology, 70(5), 406–418. doi:10.1002/
Perry, J. C., & Bond, M. (2012). Change in defense mech-
anisms during long-term dynamic psychotherapy and
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