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Tell me about
your mother

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For our next session...
Popping into your mind
For years, Republican politicians and the far-right media outlets have pumped up all kinds of crazy stuff about me, about Hillary, about Harry [Reid]. They said I wasn’t born here. They said climate change is a hoax. They said that I was going to take everybody’s guns away. [T]here are a lot of politicians who knew better. There are a lot of senators who knew better. But they went along with these stories because they figured, you know what, this will help rile up the base, it will give us an excuse to obstruct what [they’re] trying to do, we won’t be able to appoint judges, we’ll gum up the works, we’ll create gridlock, it will give us a political advantage. So they just stood by and said nothing. And their base began to actually believe this crazy stuff. So Donald Trump did not start this. Donald Trump didn’t start it. He just did what he always did, which is slap his name on it, take credit for it, and promote it. That’s what he does. And so now when suddenly it’s not working, and people are saying, wow, this guy is kind of out of line, all of a sudden, these Republican politicians who were okay with all this crazy stuff up to a point, suddenly they’re all walking away. “Oh, this is too much.” … Well, what took you so long? What the heck?
Barack Obama[1]

Rationalization is a term of art in both psychology and sociology, though the term is most popularly used in the psychological sense.


Rationalization in psychology is often understood to mean making excuses, or post hoc explanations, for some action or for holding onto some cherished belief regardless of evidence. Lying could be considered a conscious form of rationalization. Rationalization may also occur at the unconscious level, commonly known as self-deception. There is evidence that this kind of rationalization can occur immediately after a decision is made.[2][3] In some cases, the lie may come first and bleed into the unconscious, displacing the truth. This sometimes goes under the heading of "drinking one's own Kool-Aid." Rationalization is a way of reducing cognitive dissonance.

Post hoc rationalizations often occur in policymaking. Legislation is passed for a particular reason that is eventually debunked. By then, though, the law has institutionalized support that finds new justifications for why the law should continue to exist. An example is cannabis prohibition, which was originally justified on the grounds that black and Hispanics were using cannabis to seduce white women.[4] By the time that blatantly racist arguments such as this became unpopular, they were replaced with other arguments, such as the danger that cannabis would kill brain cells. When science advanced to the point that this hypothesis too was debunked, prohibitionists began arguing that pot caused an "amotivational syndrome". The budgets of numerous bureaucracies such as the National Institute on Drug Abuse and the Drug Enforcement Administration depend on cannabis remaining illegal, so their spokespeople will continually be telling the media and legislative panels that there are justifications for cannabis prohibition that have ongoing relevance and validity.[5]


Rationalization in sociology refers to the favoring of efficiency through quantification and calculation in social transactions over, for example, tradition or custom. It is usually tied into bureaucracy and the process of bureaucratization. Rationalization is considered to be central to the concept of modernity. The concept was first put forth in Max Weber's The Protestant Ethic and the Spirit of Capitalism.[6] What is considered "rational" is often contingent on what is valued by the elite of society. During the modern era, this usually equated to the goals of governing a nation-state. Urban planning serves as an example where what was rational for state purposes diverged with what was rational for locals. State planners preferred uniform designs, usually in a grid pattern, while locals were accustomed to the often odd layout of streets in unplanned areas.[7] Michel Foucault famously expanded on rationalization with his concept of "governmentality" or "governmental rationalism," which traced the evolution of governance from an "art" to a "science" and sought to explain various methods by which modern states promoted "desirable" behavior in their citizens.[8]

See also[edit]

External links[edit]


  1. This will help rile up the base
  2. Jarcho et al. The neural basis of rationalization: cognitive dissonance reduction during decision-making. Soc Cogn Affect Neurosci (2010)
  3. See also Mistakes Were Made (But Not By Me) by Carol Tavris and Elliot Aronson.
  4. "Don't Believe The (Marijuana) Hype". The Fix. January 13, 2014. http://www.thefix.com/content/Maia-Szalavitz-pot-addiction-health2100. 
  5. "The Science behind the DEA's Long War on Marijuana". Scientific American. April 19, 2016. http://www.scientificamerican.com/article/the-science-behind-the-dea-s-long-war-on-marijuana/. 
  6. Rationalization and Bureaucracy
  7. For historical examples and numerous other case studies, see Seeing Like a State by James C. Scott or Rationality and Power: Democracy in Practice by Bent Flyvbjerg.
  8. Rose, Nikolas, O'Malley, Pat and Valverde, Mariana, Governmentality (September, 16 2009). Annual Review of Law and Social Science, Vol. 2, pp. 83-104