The Art Of Rationalization

By Ron Ciancutti

One day I planted myself in a public area downtown where a lot of brown-baggers eat their lunch. As I sat and listened, I realized that casual, meal-time conversations bring about topics that people are oddly quick to seize and preposterous generalizations are formed, yet never challenged.

These are some of the gems I overhead:

  • “Those doctors will kill you if you let them. They don’t care.”
  • “Everyone hates their job; they just keep it to themselves.”
  • “I’ve worked with that guy before; he has no idea what he’s doing.”
  • “There’s no reason for them to act like that. They just want attention.”
  • “This was all planned by the higher-ups. They watch us constantly.”

There were plenty more blanket statements emitted in a tone that made them seem like absolute truths. I even heard people speaking with a level of certainty that made sensational tabloid claims seem tame:

  • “Doc said he had never seen one that bad before in all his years of practice. I’m lucky to be alive.”
  •  “Oh, there won’t be any more snow this winter; I’m sure of it.”
  • “My mother-in-law never really liked me, but she pretended to until the divorce.”
  • “I’ll never be able to lose weight because I am naturally big-boned. My mom too … and dad.”

I must admit I fought the urge to snicker at some of these statements as I wrote them down, but slowly a pattern began to emerge. I think insecurity and rationalization make individuals utter these statements. Look at each of the examples. Every sentence seems to explain away some deep problem or issue that people simply can’t overcome—weight issues, family problems, levels of professional resentment, medical maladies, etc. None of it seems to be the individual’s fault because there are always “uncontrollable” reasons that he or she almost addictively recites anytime the flame of vulnerability gets too hot.

A Habit-Forming Defense
I find rationalization to be the “Trojan Horse” of insecurity. When people over-rationalize, there are so many issues that sneak in as they sit in the belly of the horse that is wheeled through the gates of their conscience. It can be highly habit-forming, and there is no real end in sight once it becomes common. Let’s look at an example.

Why didn’t you go back to school and finish your degree after your life settled down?

  • “The kids were too young.”
  • “I was too old.”
  • “My spouse didn’t want me to.”
  • “Between my parents and the kids, I never had a moment.”
  • “I needed to work. We needed the money.”
  • “I had been sick with _______________ “ (fill in the blank).

Now don’t get me wrong; all of these are good reasons, but all of them could be overcome too if the person being asked really wanted to go back to school. Some folks hire sitters, medicate themselves to fight illness, and talk things out with parents and spouses so they can get a shot at being better educated and more eligible/informed about fulfilling a dream.

Kids, Don’t Try This At Home
Now grandmothers and mothers of young children are “rationalization queens/public defenders.” They have three standard defenses when kids whine or misbehave. Now, remember, it is never that the child might be a bit spoiled. Very simply, the child is:

  • Tired/sleepy
  • Hungry/starved
  • Upset/nervous.

So, one of the grandkids is over at our house and I ask, “Why is she whining so much today?” My wife will shoot back, “Well, she’s:

A.      Exhausted,
B.      Starved to death,
C.      A nervous wreck.”

And most of the time these conditions are blamed on one of my three sons-in-law. As in, “Her father had her at the ball park all day in that hot sun. She probably ate one of those rancid hot dogs. Now she’ll be upset and unable to sleep.” Now, that’s the “trifecta of rationalization”—a triple-whammy if you will. When she throws that pitch, I don’t even swing. Typically, it only takes one, “She’s tired.” And then to redirect, she looks at the “milking it to death” child and say, “Is somebody ready for a nap?” I usually go outside after that—the performance gives me a cavity as it drips with sweetener.

Again though, harmless as it may seem, it does become habit-forming.

It is also very common in those working to get back in shape. When I lie back on the bench-press pad, I feel so comfortable that I begin to make deals with myself. “You know, I just need to eat less. I could avoid all this boring exercise if I just stopped having pizza and ate that salad instead.” The next day, when I’m sitting in front of that meat-lover’s pie with extra cheese, I’ll say, “If I just did 50 more sit-ups tomorrow, I could eat this whole thing.”  Who can get through a whole day without a handful of rationalizations? Nobody.

Buyer Beware
I remember when I was a young buyer in the Cleveland Metroparks administration.  Every year, when I bought the ranger (police) vehicles, the local auto dealers would visit and tell me what I really needed for the staff to do their job right.

First, they said the big sedans were needed so the rangers could pursue the bad guys with the strongest, fastest engine. So, we bid out the big V8s. A few years later, car manufacturers began replicating the muscle cars of the 1970s in police kits. The dealers told me the shorter wheel base was better to navigate the twisting, turning park roads; heck, no one was buying the big sedans anymore. We tested them, and the staff agreed, so our fleet began to look like the most fashionable around, plus they were better, lower-priced cars. Now, in the last couple of years, I’ve been told that people are heavier/bigger than they used to be, so full-sized SUVs must make up the fleet to accommodate “clients” who are forced to sit in a cramped back seat. It is indeed true that people are quite a bit wider than before, and you do see the fleets of many cities have caught onto this trend, too. But are all of these the reasons that car dealers want me to believe really true, or are these just giant rationalizations intended to usher in the next fad? I have to tell you it sure seems like that. But if it is just a mind-bending trick, there are a lot of us admiring the Emperor’s clothes every year. I think the reasons are legitimate, so the rationalization that has some elements of truth and logic in it is generally more respected.

When To Plea Bargain
As handy as these rationalizations are, they sometimes fall flat. My wife and I were at another couple’s house for playoff football once, and as we watched the game my friend’s wife was reviewing their credit-card statement. Suddenly, her nose twisted and her eyes began to blink rapidly. She asked her husband why he felt it necessary to have lunch at one of the eateries downtown known for employing mainly short-skirted, blonde, tan waitresses.

Rationalization Attempt 1: “Well, I let the client choose, and that’s where he wanted to go.”

As he leaned around the chair and smiled at her, she sat motionless. (RESPONSE REJECTED)

Rationalization Attempt 2: “They have the best celery and ranch dressing.”

Again, he looked at her waiting for a nod. It didn’t happen. (ANOTHER REJECTION)

Rationalization Attempt 3: “Anyway, that place was terrible.  I’m never going there again.”

Now she had a knowing look on her face, like “Good answer, good answer.” (BINGO!)

Clearly, the first two rationalizations did not cut it, so he abandoned the “reason why” plan completely and went with the “I’m really wrong, and I’ll never do it again.” You might want to remember this one. When rationalizations begin to sound like they did in third grade as you tricked your little sister into eating glue, it’s simply better to go with the “I have learned my lesson” look. The life you save may be your own, brother. That’s rational.

Ron Ciancutti has worked in the parks and recreation industry since he was 16 years old, covering everything from maintenance, operations, engineering, surveying, park management, design, planning, recreation, and finance. He holds a B.S. in Business from Bowling Green State University and an M.B.A. from Baldwin Wallace University. He has held his current position as Director of Procurement since 1990. He is not on Facebook, but he can be reached at