08 February 2007


I have a very clear memory of sitting in science class in 7th grade, listening to Mr. Manzoline (rhymes with gasoline, he used to say) talk about something called "rationalization." I think it was part of a unit on psychology or something - I don't really remember the context. I only remember the content and my reaction to it

Rationalization was described as a psychological defense mechanism, whereby someone comes up with logical (rational) explanations for behavior. The implication was that it wasn't a good thing to do.

I couldn't see why rationalization was bad. To my 12-year-old mind, rationalization seemed, well, rational. If you've got a good, logical reason for doing something, then you're all set. What I didn't understand at the time was that the rationalized reason for the behavior isn't the real reason. And I'm coming to see now how rationalization even plays a role in technical decision making.

The modern scientific management mindset is all about rationality, and it falls prey to rationalization quite easily. In Ricardo Semler's book The Seven Day Weekend, he tells the story of a highly-paid oil company exec who regularly came up with completely wrong predictions about future oil prices. How did he keep his job? Rationalization! Semler quotes him as saying "I have the right to be wrong, but only so long as I am precisely wrong.

In other words, it doesn't matter if he came up with a wildly wrong answer, as long as he's got a good rationale (rationalization) for how he got there. More generally, if we've got a good process, the results don't matter. We can rationalize away the lousy outcome by praising the method.
Old Manzo was right about rationalization. It's a pretty bad idea, and leads down some unfortunate roads. I think his next topic was "fantasizing," which he illustrated with a story of daydreaming about the rabbits he was raising, but we were all to busy laughing at the word "fantasize" to pay much attention.

1 comment:

dad said...

Hi Dan: simply put, to avoid a whole lot of 'psychobabble', rationalization is: 'mental excuse'..... it comes from actually Aesop's fables, the one of the 'Fox and the Grapes'..... as the story goes, the fox was hungary for his favorite food, grapes and could jump 9 ft in the air and the grapes were 10' in the air. After an hour or so of trying in vain to reach the grapes, the fox's foe, the crow, came by and caught him in his frustration. Rather than admit to the crow that he couldn't jump high enough to reach the grapes, the Fox, slowly walked away, and told the crow, that he "wasn't really hungry after all, and didn't really like grapes, and the grapes were probably sour any way". Thus, the origination of the English term: "Sour grapes".....Dad