Rationalizing: looking for the wrong kind of loopholes

post by bokov · 2013-09-26T15:05:34.827Z · score: 4 (14 votes) · LW · GW · Legacy · 7 comments

This morning I found what I think is an interesting way to explain rationalizing to my son, and I thought I'd share it:


Two subsequent thoughts that ocurred to me:


Comments sorted by top scores.

comment by Crux · 2013-09-26T15:42:39.168Z · score: 2 (2 votes) · LW(p) · GW(p)

I don't understand your point. The normal use of the word "rationalization" is when you say something for reason X, which has nothing to do with the literal interpretation of your words, but then you try to defend the literal interpretation. For example, you say that you didn't really want the promotion, just to make yourself feel better, but then you come up with all sorts of plausible-sounding explanations for why this is actually the case. You chose to say you didn't want it for one reason and one reason only: You wanted to stop feeling the pain of failure. But then you try to justify it by giving real reasons. Since you chose to say it because it made you feel better instead of because it's true, the truth of the statement is not to be given high priors (not necessarily, anyway).

This is the normal way we use the word "rationalization". I don't understand your suggestion. How does physical/cultural laws/norms come into this at all?

comment by Brillyant · 2013-09-26T18:39:22.322Z · score: 2 (2 votes) · LW(p) · GW(p)

It makes (too much, unfortunately) sense to me.

Try accomplishing some difficult (but possible) endurance goal, say, running X miles in Y minutes.

Before the run, it is very easy to be rational about what you, a human being, are capable of, "I can run X miles in Y minutes. I'm confident of that." And, as long as the goal is sincerely reasonable, you are right. You can do it.

During the run, the temptation to rationalize increases in correlation with your physical discomfort and fatigue. (It is actually scary the sorts of false things you can convice yourself are true when you are under strain.)

The reality in the physical universe is that you can run X miles in Y minutes. Nothing is stopping you.

But you don't acheive the goal. You slow down your pace, and run X miles in Y+1 minutes. And you convince yourself you can't acheive the goal, or perhaps worse, that you don't want to acheive the goal and it just isn't that big a deal to you (...but you could do it if you really tried).

Ah, but you do want to acheive the goal (badly); it is why you set out on that run.

comment by Creutzer · 2013-09-27T07:06:32.857Z · score: 3 (3 votes) · LW(p) · GW(p)

But that's just a special case of "giving a made-up reason". This doesn't mean that natural laws have anything to do with rationalization in general.

comment by bokov · 2013-09-28T16:27:23.185Z · score: 0 (0 votes) · LW(p) · GW(p)

Natural laws are simply the non made-up reasons that one could be examining but is not.

comment by Brillyant · 2013-09-27T14:00:55.819Z · score: 0 (0 votes) · LW(p) · GW(p)

The natural laws apply to rationalization in the exact way the OP says they apply. And exactly in the way I attempted to articulate.

There is an exact answer to the question: How fast can I run 1 mile right now? It is a fixed number that takes into account the unchanging laws of the physical universe.

Let's say the number is 4 minutes.

If the number is 4 minutes, and I fail to run 1 mile in four minutes, then anything I say about my failure to acheive 4 minutes is a rationalization. I may say whatever I like to help myself feel better about failing, but it does not correspond the the natural laws of the universe. I may even (subconsicously) convince myself 4 minutes is impossible, and therefore practically ensure I never acheive what is actually possible for me in the physical universe.

And, exactly the way the OP said in regard to the opposite case, there are natural laws that dictate a fixed answer to what is not possible for me to acheive on my run today. If 4 minutes is truly possible, but 3:59 is truly not, then I may use the physical restraints of reality to demonstrate that fact, and it would be called "presenting evidence". (By the way, I think it is important to try and know what is not possible today. Unreasonable expectations, in my experience, are one of the biggest detriments toward maintaining motivation and staying happy.)

I've experienced this firsthand (as have probably most people who run). It is amazing how much you can justify failure to acheive what is possible under physical duress. When you are exhausted, each step becomes a practice in instrumental rationaility -- Do I choose to acheive what is possible according to the natural law? Or do I rationalize my failure (my choice) to optimize my performance? Once you recognize this is what you are actually doing on a step-by-step basis, you can go about the business of figuring out how to remedy it.

Everything short of what is possible is allowed to stand in our minds as "the best I could do" by means of rationalization. It's just a convenient lie.

comment by bokov · 2013-09-28T16:31:05.620Z · score: 0 (0 votes) · LW(p) · GW(p)

You made me realize that maybe I'm lumping together two different self-defeating activities under the label of rationalization.

There is prior rationalization, for example to justify why the effort already expended is sufficient, or the course of action chosen is the best one (the mental effort put into choosing a course of action is sufficient).

Then there is posterior rationalization, for example to justify not re-thinking future strategy, not making future attempts, or not expending the effort to mitigate the consequences of an undesired/unexpected past outcome.

comment by [deleted] · 2013-09-27T00:45:34.150Z · score: 0 (0 votes) · LW(p) · GW(p)

An egoist definition: rationalizing is saying "it's okay when I do this" without the luck or skill or force to back that up.