Human beings rationalise their actions. This means that they seek to explain their actions with reference to reasons. Where they get those reasons can vary, depending on what problem they are trying to solve at the time.
For instance, a child may be caught stealing sugar from the kitchen. They may say, when confronted: ‘It wasn’t me, it was the dog.’ This rationalisation, this apparent explanation of their actions, is designed to solve the problem of being held accountable for an action someone else finds reprehensible. The child may not even believe their own story, nor even that their action really was reprehensible – they just want to deflect the consequences, given the action and the audience.
When we are adults, we don’t stop rationalising, though our rationalisations can get more complex. A politician, faced with the failure of a new system, may say: ‘We always expected the system to need improvements; our new plan aims to remedy the problems, which are inevitable in such situations.’ Again, this rationalisation is very much offered in order to deflect potential consequences of the failure, and deflect a potential negative reaction.
Political reasoning tends to talk in generalisations, describing any particular situation in relation to macro understandings. Thus, if something goes wrong, the failure will be attributed in some way to a standard, generalised enemy of that particular political approach. If something goes right, the success will be attributed to a standard, generalised in-group of friends of that particular approach.
If I have a political view which considers a particular part of the community as important, then I may become rather addicted to explaining life’s successes and failures in relation to the friends and enemies of that community. When something goes right, I may explain it with reference to the good actions of my political friends; when something goes wrong, I may explain it as the actions of my political enemies.
Personal reasoning tends to talk in particulars, describing any individual situation in relation to micro understandings. Thus, if something goes wrong, the failure will be attributed to a particular, nearby, available being who can viably be blamed. If something goes right, the success will be attributed to the self.
If I have a personal view which considers myself more important than others, then I can easily develop the habit of explaining life’s successes as mine, and life’s failures as other people’s. When life goes right, I did it. When life goes wrong, they did it.
THE PSYCHOLOGICAL BASIS FOR RATIONALISATION
The above tendencies in humans create a lot of delusion, by which I mean biased, partial stories. What is the purpose of the bias? Why do we bother to raise ourselves and our in-groups, and put down others and our out-groups?
The answer perhaps lies back in that kitchen, with the child avoiding the potential consequences of stealing the sugar. We are intensely aware of a constant threat of loss of reputation. What better way, apparently, to keep our reputation, than to hold successes close to our selves, and distance failures so that they are seen to belong to others?
In this way, biased rationalisations are part of our self-esteem management. When life is difficult, we tend to increase our blaming behaviour – exactly what you would expect if we are trying to protect our social position by distancing ourselves from perceived failure. We stay proud by blaming others for bad things, and taking credit for good things.
A MORE MINDFUL WAY
The trouble with all this rationalisation is that we start to believe our own lies. A politician founds a career on their political rationalisations; and a person founds their reputation and self-esteem on their personal rationalisations. Lose your story, and you lose your reason for being, your sense of self-justification.
This explains, in part, why we collapse when we lose our friends, or our jobs, or our reputations. We have spent our whole lives defending a political and personal home territory. We know the map; we know how the land lies. When circumstances change, we cease to sit confidently at the centre of our own story, and for a while we have no idea what story we are part of. We can get depressed, anxious, or both.
A more mindful way of proceeding, which can protect us from the ups and downs of life, is to be less attached to our political home territory, and less attached to the myth of our self that we have invented. The trouble with stories, is that they need a lot of upkeep. Things happen all the time which are inconsistent with our self-stories, and we find ourselves using up a lot of mental energy bolstering our personal and political myths to counter the inconsistencies.
I am not suggesting that we lose our stories completely and immediately. But I am suggesting that we become aware of the bias we hold towards protection of the self, and that we seek to become more mindful of the disadvantages of that bias. We can afford to lose quite a lot of our personal and political arrogance.
If we can see our political tendency to rationalise, and our personal tendency to blame, and get a sense of humour about them… then we may find some peace.