Easier to Deny or Rationalize Behavior Than Evolve Your Own Identity

“To take control of their lives, people tell themselves stories about the person they want to be.” – Jonathan Franzen

Intelligent people have a remarkable ability to rationalize irrational past actions, to re-interpret history to fit their preferred narrative. I’ve noticed this happens most when the actions in question contradict a person’s internal vision of who they want to be: when the action represents a contradiction to a long-standing identity conception, and this contradiction represents an unacceptable burden of guilt or confusion (“If I’m not being the person I always say I am, then who am I?“), so they deny or rationalize it to make to compatible.

The man who has long considered himself an ethical person will find a way to contort an unethical misstep into the realm of moral acceptability. The woman who has long considered herself emotionally mature will find a way to contort an act of emotional immaturity into that identity.

For lying to yourself about specific actions is easier than re-defining the bounds of your imagined identity so that it’s newly inclusive of the contradictory actions. When I see once-ethical men devolve into moral grey, they still identify as upstanding even though their behavior (which they have denied or rationalized) has eclipsed the label.

Who’s susceptible to doing this? Not folks on the extremes of the rationality spectrum. At one end, the most meta-rational are so damn grounded in reality that they will not allow themselves self-delusion and cannot bear an incongruity between the story they tell themselves about who they are and the story an objective outsider would tell based on their actions. For this rare breed their identity and actions are mostly consistent. On the other side of the scale, the truly stupid are not capable of performing the kind of mental jujitsu that facilitate a self-serving re-remembering of events.

It’s the rest of us, who are smart but by no means have arrived at rationality nirvana, who I think are most proficient at lying to ourselves about our actions to shoehorn them into a preconceived identity. (Note the phrasing “lying to ourselves” – it’s the internal conversation I’m referring to.)

“Speak the truth, even if your voice trembles,” says Eliezer Yudkowky. We could add: Confront the reality of your actions, even if it means your identity will have to evolve to accommodate them.

Bottom Line: Very smart, rational people still do not often let the truth get in the way of their current and aspirational identity. It’s much easier to rationalize or deny behavior at odds with your self-identification than to confront your own self-delusion.

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12 Responses to Easier to Deny or Rationalize Behavior Than Evolve Your Own Identity

  1. MD says:

    My 2 cents:

    I think its fair to say that every human hates seeing contradictions in their beliefs (being in a state of cognitive dissonance). However, this feeling of discomfort can be good thing if it brings you to question your beliefs and grow as a person. I think allowing ourselves to enter into cognitive dissonance and deal with it is the only way to truly evolve.

    However, I don’t agree that smart people are more likely to enter denial. I think you can be smart AND grounded/realistic. Even though you might be good at rationalizing ways of dodging cognitive dissonance, it doesn’t mean that you actually do it or ”enjoy” doing it.

  2. Ben Casnocha says:

    I think allowing ourselves to enter into cognitive dissonance and deal with it is the only way to truly evolve. – the key is the “deal with it” part. Most don’t. That’s my point.

    Re: smart people, I do think smart people are better able to do this than non-smart people.

  3. Kevin says:

    Who would want to live in rationality nirvana? I imagine everyone there is miserable and guilty all the time. Granted there’s some value in not deceiving yourself, but trying to be rational all the time can make you kind of grinch-like. Speaking from my own personal experience.

  4. Krishna says:

    In most situations, the rationality per se is transient. It’s often dangerous to be fixated with a distinct identity even as we progressively realize it’s dysfunctional (“speak the truth even if it trembles” is not practical). The smarts are most adaptable.

    Imagine being a stubborn Bull or an obstinate Bear in a volatile stock market? It’s guaranteed ruin. You need to move with the trend and alternate between the two (go long as you sense momentum and go short when the rally reaches the peak or your exit target). The mantra is to stay in the money. Stay liquid.

    Be nimble. Be agile. Rationality can wait. Opportunities don’t.

  5. What do you mean “rational”? Do you mean “consistently believing what is true” and “consistently making the right choices to protect what’s important to you” or do you have some kind of picture of Spock going here?

  6. Dave says:

    I remember having a conversation about your earlier post at the time, and being disappointed by your perspective. Glad to hear you’ve evolved. There is a big difference between not always succeeding at staying in touch with reality, and believing that it doesn’t matter.

  7. Ben Casnocha says:

    Probably the Spock image. :)

  8. Jared says:

    For a good portion of my life, I perceived myself on what I thought the world saw (or rather what I wanted them to perceive me as). An image based mostly on my “intentions.” I always intended to do the right or moral thing but often did not. Now we’re talking about even small things, i.e. buying a card for someone on their birthday or going out of my way to help a friend. I would even include in this such things as lying to someone about having ice cream in my car as to not hurt their feelings by telling them I have something better to do.

    To Thine Self Be True

    After going through a difficult self-discovery process and working towards more humility and ego deflation, my intentions and actions are pretty much in line today. Of course I didn’t just wake up one day and realize I needed to do this. It was out of desperation really to save my life.

  9. Kevin says:

    Trying to think about what I want to say without sounding like an idiot…
    When making personal decisions be as rational as you can possibly be, and remove your own bias to do what’s best for you. In group situations the equation changes. Even though you know people can’t tell the difference between cheap wine and expensive wine, buy the pricier stuff rather than try to convince your friends it doesn’t make a difference, or stay to the end of a movie rather than teach people about sunk costs.

  10. Well, that answers my question: you’re defining “rational” as “assuming others are rational whether or not they are”, which is of course irrational.

  11. Jenn says:

    If I’m understanding the post and comments, I agree with Krishna that identity can and should be fluid based on experiences and new information, hence the definition of evolve.

    I think the more interesting question is when is it appropriate to evolve your self identity? I say this because a fear I have is that I rationalize current decisions or “evolve” my identity because I *want* something or someone to be right for me.

  12. Ian Maxwell says:

    Late reply is late.

    Kevin, rationality is about finding and carrying out the most effective solution, unclouded by bias. How on earth is demanding that other people change their preferences, when you could easily just fill them and move on, an example of that?

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