Coping or Complacency? Rationalization Instead of Behavior Change Is Learned Early

Sigmund Freud, Ernest Jones

Rationalization was described by Freud biographer and psychoanalyst Ernest Jones as an unconscious maneuver to provide plausible explanation that manages unacceptable behavior, motives, or feelings.

Gil Diesendruck

This tactic was observed among children as young as ages four to six, by Bar-Ilan University’s Avi Benozio and Gil Diesendruck.
They suggested that these children had already learned to “reframe” disappointing circumstances as a way of reducing uncomfortable cognitive dissonance, described by New School’s Leon Festinger.

Leon Festinger

In Benozio’s and Diesendruck’s experiments, children ages three, four, five and six years old completed assignments in exchange for colorful adhesive stickers that varied in attractiveness and appeal to each age group.

The young participants could invest considerable effort or minimal work in tasks ranging in challenge from reporting current age to closing eyes and counting as far as possible – then counting five more.
The children were permitted to keep these prizes or give them to an unidentified person.

When six year olds invested substantial effort to obtain attractive rewards, they were less likely to relinquish these valued stickers to others.
However, four year olds did not demonstrate this discerning difference in awarding their winnings to others. 

Elliot Aronson

When six year olds applied significant effort to obtaining less desirable rewards, they also distributed fewer to others, but their reasoning differed.
They adjusted their appraisal of the less attractive stickers, indicating that these prizes were more appealing.
Younger children reduced the dissonance using a different strategy: Four year olds discarded stickers rather than more favorably assessing their value.


These behavioral differences suggest that these children learn to rationalize by age six and this strategy persists among adults, found Stanford’s Elliot Aronson and the U.S. Army’s Judson Mills.
Their controlled studies validate Aesop‘s observation of “sweet lemons” and “sour grapes” in the well-known fable The Fox and the Grapes.

To mitigate potential errors in inferring preference and rationalization from this type of study, UCLA’s Johanna M. Jarcho and Matthew D. Lieberman with Elliot T. Berkman of University of Oregon conducted fMRIs while participants completed decisions to test attitude change linked to cognitive dissonance.

Joanna Jarcho

Joanna Jarcho

Brain activity significantly increased in the right-inferior frontal gyrus, medial fronto-parietal regions and ventral striatum while decreasing in the anterior insula, suggesting a pattern of rapid reappraisal required in emotional regulation.
Rationalization, then, may be an automatic coping mechanism rather than an unconscious defense mechanism.

Reinhold Niebuhr

Reinhold Niebuhr

Benozio and Diesendruck warned that this adaptive capacity could lead to complacent acceptance instead of working to change negative circumstances, articulated in the well-known Serenity Prayer attributed to Yale’s Reinhold Niebuhr:

…grant me the serenity to accept the things I cannot change,
The courage to change the things I can,
And the wisdom to know the difference.

-*To what extent is rationalization a logical error?
-*Or is rationalization an effective emotional regulation strategy?

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Twitter: @kathrynwelds


©Kathryn Welds


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