The Wheatley Institution

Fellow Notes

Rationalization is a Warning Signal - Listen to It

“When we catch ourselves rationalizing our behavior it is best to stop and pause for a deeper reflection of the situation.”

Bill O'Rourke | August 12, 2016
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Over the years, I have learned from the academic experts that ethical lapses in behavior typically occur when three factors present themselves:  perceived pressure, perceived opportunity, and rationalization.

“Rationalization” is necessary so that otherwise good people can convince themselves that their questionable behavior is somehow justified.  The rationalization process can serve as an excellent warning signal to each of us.  We need to listen to that warning signal.

Take for example the situation of when the clerk at the grocery store gives change for a $20.00 bill when the customer presented a $10.00 bill.  Taking the additional $10.00 in change is wrong, no doubt about that.   But it’s $10.00 and you could use the extra money (pressure) and here you have the opportunity to benefit from someone else’s mistake (opportunity).   However, customers in this situation sometimes attempt to rationalize taking the additional money. 

Or, consider driving on an Interstate highway where the speed limit is 65 miles per hour, going 70 miles per hour is against the law.  You are trying to get to your destination quickly (pressure) and there do not seem to be any police monitoring the speed (opportunity).  Drivers attempt to rationalize their behavior.

Or, a final example:  Imagine that you have just placed a large order with your supplier and after signing the contract, the supplier’s salesperson sends you an iPad.  You don’t have an iPad and could surely enjoy one (pressure) and here you are being presented one (opportunity).

In all of these cases, rationalizing is a warning signal.  When you discover yourself making excuses or trying to justify an otherwise “wrong” behavior you need to take stock in your actions.  By listening to the warning signal you can pause and reexamine your conduct. 

Pausing makes you realize that unjustified enrichment is just wrong.

In the grocery clerk example, a little thought might make you realize that the clerk is a single mother trying to make ends meet.  And, if her cash register is “short” at the end of the day she has to make up the difference from her pocket.  Do you really want to take the money from her pocket?  And, pausing makes you realize that unjustified enrichment is just wrong.  You are not entitled to the extra money.  Period.

In the driving example, are you willing to take the consequences of an expensive speeding ticket?  Perhaps you are.  Worse yet, what if there is an accident and you are found at fault because of your speeding.  Do you really want to be responsible for damage or possible injuries of others, or worse?

In the business gift situation, when rationalization starts - stop and think.  Whether your actions will be swayed through this gift or not is irrelevant; it sure looks wrong to take a $700 gift from a supplier.  The amount of the gift is beyond nominal and probably violated company policy.  You are employed to secure the best deal from your suppliers, and taking gifts is not a legitimate part of your job.

We face these issues of right and wrong all the time.  We need to allow the rationalization process serve as a warning that something may be amiss.  When we catch ourselves rationalizing our behavior it is best to stop and pause for a deeper reflection of the situation.  Ask for more time if that will help.  Talk to a trusted friend or colleague and weigh their opinion.  Review the situation as independently and objectively as practicable. 

Rationalization is a mechanization used to attempt to justify behavior that is wrong.

Sometimes the rationalization is appropriate. A thorough review will help verify the appropriateness.  But, in most instances, rationalization is a mechanization used to attempt to justify behavior that is wrong.

By pausing when we feel ourselves rationalizing our actions, we can review the situation, objectively, and hopefully avoid taking inappropriate actions.  And, in habitually practicing such a review process, those excursions that sometimes occur in the life of otherwise very good people can be minimized or avoided.