The Surprising Benefit of Self Rationalization

Behavioral psychology books like Subliminal, Predictably Irrational, and Brain Bugs encourage becoming more conscious of self rationalization.

Plenty of studies have proven humans exhibit this behavior by creating evidence to support an outcome if it benefits us. This has generally led me to believe self rationalization is something to avoid.

After hearing a TED talk by philosopher Ruth Chang, I’ve realized this may not be the best mindset for certain types non-data driven decisions. Yes, this is a scary thought for metrics obsessed startup folks (guilty).

Chang doesn’t explicitly use the term “self rationalization,” but she argues that in order to make hard decisions, you must create your own reasons to back them up.

Comparing Value

Chang builds this argument by challenging our assumptions of how we compare value. She says decisions of value (i.e. justice, beauty, happiness) can’t use the same comparative metrics as decisions of scientific quantities (i.e. mass, weight, length).

When you consider a comparative question not involving value, such as which suitcase weighs more, there are only three possible outcomes — the weight of one can be greater than, less than, or equal to the other. This makes choosing the best option obvious.

As a modern society, we tend to believe that scientific thinking can apply to everything of importance in the world. But the world of value, Chang says, is different from the world of science. This is because there’s no scientific representation for what we “ought” to do, which is generally what we’re seeking when we contemplate life’s hardest decisions.

Should I take I job in LA or SF? Should I break up with my significant other? Should become a programmer or a lawyer?

It’s impossible to make a data driven decision for these types of questions. Scientific comparisons may be a factor in such decisions (i.e. salary of one job offer vs another), but they are value-based at their core. This means there’s no “best” option.

A Fourth Relation

Chang proposes that we introduce a fourth relation, beyond better, worse, or equal, for choices that can’t be represented by real numbers. She calls this relation “on a par.” Alternatives on a par are in the same neighborhood of value, but one isn’t better than the other. That’s why the choice is so hard.

This understanding of hard choices leads to a unique trait of humans. We have the ability to create our own reasons, or self rationalize.

If life was made entirely of decisions where there’s always a best alternative (e.g. scientific comparisons), this trait wouldn’t be necessary. In fact, a world full of these “easy” choices would enslave us to reasons. That would mean we must choose to marry Sue instead of Betty, to live in the city instead of the country, to take one job instead of another, etc.

This obviously isn’t the reality of life, as Chang explains:

Instead, you faced alternatives that were on a par, hard choices, and you made reasons for yourself to choose that hobby, that house and that job. When alternatives are on a par, the reasons given to us, the ones that determine whether we’re making a mistake, are silent as to what to do. It’s here, in the space of hard choices, that we get to exercise our normative power, the power to create reasons for yourself, to make yourself into the kind of person for whom country living is preferable to the urban life.

It’s a pretty convincing argument. Isn’t life just what we make of it? People/places/things/events are as they are, we all just perceive them differently. I’ll stop there to avoid going off on a metaphysical tangent.

Applying It

This idea of avoiding scientific comparisons (greater than, less than, equal to) for non-scientific decisions is interesting, but difficult in practice. We seem to be hard wired to compare decisions of value scientifically.

The more applicable concept I took out of this talk was that we can put our entire selves behind an option, supported by reasons we create on our own. Here’s who I am. This is where I stand. I am for living in this city. I am for eating bagels.

Chang wraps up the talk with how to apply this to making hard decisions, and even encourages cherishing those opportunities:

So when we face hard choices, we shouldn’t beat our head against a wall trying to figure out which alternative is better. There is no best alternative. Instead of looking for reasons out there, we should be looking for reasons in here: Who am I to be? You might decide to be a pink sock-wearing, cereal-loving, country-living banker, and I might decide to be a black sock-wearing, urban, donut-loving artist. What we do in hard choices is very much up to each of us.

Now, people who don’t exercise their normative powers in hard choices are drifters. We all know people like that. I drifted into being a lawyer. I didn’t put my agency behind lawyering. I wasn’t for lawyering. Drifters allow the world to write the story of their lives. They let mechanisms of reward and punishment — pats on the head, fear, the easiness of an option — to determine what they do. So the lesson of hard choices reflect on what you can put your agency behind, on what you can be for, and through hard choices, become that person.

Far from being sources of agony and dread, hard choices are precious opportunities for us to celebrate what is special about the human condition, that the reasons that govern our choices as correct or incorrect sometimes run out, and it is here, in the space of hard choices, that we have the power to create reasons for ourselves to become the distinctive people that we are. And that’s why hard choices are not a curse but a godsend.