Strategies for coping with questionable decisions

"I read Playboy for the articles": Strategies for coping with questionable decisions (link to the article)

Zoe Chance & Michael Norton

Humans are masters of lying and self-deception. We want others to believe us good, fair, responsible and logical, and we yearn to see ourselves this way. Therefore, when our actions might appear selfish, prejudiced or perverted, we engage a host of strategies to justify our behavior with rational excuses: "I hired my son because he's better educated." "I promoted Ashley because she's more experienced than Aisha." In this article, we review previous studies examining how people restructure situations to view their behavior in a more positive light, and we present the results of our Playboy study. We conclude by briefly reviewing two additional strategies for coping with such difficult situations: forgoing choices, and forgetting decisions altogether.

A longer version of this paper can also be found here.





  • comment-avatar
    Hugo Mercier 21 February 2011 (13:24)

    Hi Zoe and Michael, Thanks a lot for this contribution. I’m going to cheat a bit, but in the longer version of your article, you finish by saying: “We would suggest that while the benefits may outweigh the costs for an individual, those costs are likely assumed by that person’s peers: We would likely not want to be the partner, roommate, or subordinate of a person comfortable sacrificing truth for personal happiness.” Yet it seems to me that rationalizations have advantages for others as well. First, they denote some kind of motivation to please others. Imagine what you’d think of a roommate who would not care at all what you think of her actions — that may be worse than one who realizes there’s something wrong with her actions (that they may offend you, etc) and tries to rationalize a bit. Second, a lot of research on motivated reasoning shows that when people can’t find arguments when they try to rationalize their future decisions, then they may change their mind, in which case the rationalization process is quite good for the peers. Would you be ready to rehabilitate rationalizations, at least in part? Hugo

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    Zoe Chance 21 February 2011 (19:42)

    Thanks for your comment, Hugo – and you get brownie points for reading the longer version of the paper. You’re asking whether rationalizations can *ever* be beneficial for particular people around us, and in circumstances which I believe to be exceptional, the answer is certainly yes. Take war, for example. If rationalization can help heal a soldier’s guilt, it will be a boon to his family relationships. But in the bigger picture, rationalizing wartime actions probably makes it easier to go to war again. Or to send sons and daughters to war with one’s blessing. You mention that we want others to care about us and our opinions, and that rationalization could be a demonstration of caring. But wouldn’t an apology generally accomplish the same end more efficiently and effectively? I differ with you here, in that I expect most people don’t want to hear excuses, they want sincerity, and, when appropriate, contrition. Last, you mention that when rationalization doesn’t work, people may change their minds (presumably, to pursue a nobler course of action). But what good has the rationalization process done, then, if the benefit is its failure? Couldn’t we have been better served by skipping the rationalization altogether and changing our mind as a result of clear rather than muddled thinking?

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    Hugo Mercier 22 February 2011 (00:38)

    Thanks for your reply Zoe. I had actually not though of the example in which the mental health of one person can also be beneficial for others, but I do grant you it may not happen that often. As for the second point, I’m not trying to argue that rationalizations are better than explicit excuses (although, pragmatically, rationalizations can sometimes play that role: when you mumble some semi-coherent explanation for your behavior, the interlocutor is likely to understand that you’re embarrassed enough). I’m saying that rationalizations are better than nothing. Imagine dealing with someone who could do something wrong, inappropriate or stupid without feeling compelled in the slightest to offer anything to explain her behavior. To me that would be worse than someone trying to provide some kind of rationalization. First because it does mean that the person realize she’s done something others think is wrong, which is essential if she’s not to do it again. Second because it provides us with an opportunity to confront the rationalization, point out its flaws. As for the last point, again I agree that in this comparison rationalizations are not ideal, I’m just saying that they’re better than nothing. If we didn’t feel compelled to anticipate providing explanations for our actions, we would probably behave much more badly than we actually do (at least if we are to believe the experiments in the motivated reasoning literature). So yes, rationalizations are far from ideal, but I still think they beat no rationalizations, maybe by a long shot. (I’m starting to get scared that I’m only rationalizing my reliance on rationalizations…)

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    Zoe Chance 23 February 2011 (20:14)

    Hugo, I like your idea that rationalization “does mean that the person realize she’s done something others think is wrong, which is essential if she’s not to do it again…” We agree that having even a smidgen of either a moral conscience or theory of mind is preferable to not having those qualities. And I agree with you that the presence of either a conscience or a theory of mind is a necessary condition for rationalization. So yes, I think most of us would rather spend time with rationalizers than with sociopaths or the severely autistic. But I think the likelihood of rationalization leading to clear thinking is slight. First of all, most rationalizations are never verbalized, so we don’t receive contradictory feedback. Second, they are often hard to disprove (e.g. for any individual in our Playboy study, it is impossible for an outside observer – and perhaps he himself – to know whether he chose the swimsuit issue for the articles or the girls), and therefore still offer little opportunity for improvement. It would be interesting to analyze criminal trial transcripts to test the impact of rationalizations by plaintiffs on their sentences, and to learn more about what drives the effect.

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    Hugo Mercier 23 February 2011 (20:56)

    I think you’re right that rationalizations, at least when they’re not expressed, are not much better than nothing. It’s possible however that we think they’re not often expressed because psychology experiments usually don’t have the interactive component that would call for participants to justify their behavior to someone else in a vaguely naturalistic way (it’s also possible that the behaviors studied in most psychology experiments — and for good reasons — are too mild to require the actual expression of rationalizations). Your second point reminds me of the recent BBS paper by von Hippel and Trivers on self-deception. As you point out, rationalizations can not only fail to deliver any good, they can also lead to bad outcomes by making people have wrong opinions about themselves (especially since they may be the ones most likely to be fooled by their own rationalizations: at least other people have reasons to be suspicious). And I like your suggestion about the court transcripts — although it would be hard to tease out the cases in which the rationalizations had some basis in reality and those for which they had none.

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    Zoe Chance 4 March 2011 (19:55)

    Yes, for anyone interested in self-deception, that whole issue of BBS is great–many rejoinders, and a lengthy response to them by the authors (Vol 34, Issue 1). RE the court transcripts idea, yes, it wouldn’t be simple. But at least coders (blind to the outcome of the trial) could classify plaintiff statements along a continuum of something like “plausible explanation”–>”implausible justification,” and compare to plaintiffs who declined to make a statement. (Holding constant charge, race, sex, etc.)

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    Steve Merrick 22 April 2011 (14:35)

    “We would suggest that while the benefits may outweigh the costs for an individual, those costs are likely assumed by that person’s peers: “We would likely not want to be the partner, roommate, or subordinate of a person comfortable sacrificing truth for personal happiness. In other words, we [that person’s peers] would likely not want to be the partner, roommate, or subordinate of a *human being*? We *all* rationalise, don’t we?

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    Zoe Chance 22 April 2011 (17:43)

    Thanks for your comment, Steve. I agree with you that everyone rationalizes at least some of the time, and therefore we must learn to cope with that in one another. You neglected the small but significant point that we meant and said “*comfortable* sacrificing truth for personal happiness.”