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Tuesday, December 14, 2021

Not so much rational but rationalizing: Humans evolved as coherence-seeking, fiction-making animals

Yong, J. C., Li, N. P., & Kanazawa, S. 
(2021). American Psychologist, 76(5), 781–793. 


The evidence for biased perceptions and judgments in humans coupled with evidence for ecological rationality in nonhuman animals suggest that the claim that humans are the rational animal may be overstated. We instead propose that discussions of human psychology may benefit from viewing ourselves not so much as rational animals but rather as the rationalizing animal. The current article provides evidence that rationalization is unique to humans and argues that rationalization processes (e.g., cognitive dissonance reduction, post hoc justification of choices, confabulation of reasons for moral positions) are aimed at creating the fictions we prefer to believe and maintaining the impression that we are psychologically coherent and rational. Coherence appears to be prioritized at the expense of veridicality, suggesting that distorted perceptions and appraisals can be adaptive for humans—under certain circumstances, we are better off understanding ourselves and reality not so accurately. Rationalization also underlies the various shared beliefs, religions, norms, and ideologies that have enabled humans to organize and coordinate their actions on a grand scale, for better or worse. We conclude with a discussion of the implications of this unique human psychological trait.


Adaptive Benefit 6: Deceiving Others

While the act of rationalization can be fundamentally regarded as a self-deception perpetuated by humans to maintain a rational or positive self-view, rationalization processes can also be utilized to distort perceptions of reality to strategically misinform others. Other-deception is a strategy that has evolved in our ancestors’ struggle to accrue resources, and people frequently lie to those on whom they are dependent to receive resources that might otherwise not be provided (Steinel & De Dreu, 2004). Rationalization facilitates deception by making a lie the focal, preferred belief, after which reality is reinterpreted to make the lie appear more plausible. For instance, a person may steal from his friend and then lie about how he was out of town during the theft. Thereafter, beliefs about the self and information pertaining to the theft, such as details about his travels or other potential suspects, may be reconstructed in his own mind to maintain the ruse. Individuals who cheat on their partners can rationalize their actions to such an extent that they become convinced of their lack of responsibility in the affair (Foster & Misra, 2013).

As being caught as a deceiver is costly through either immediate retaliation (e.g., withdrawal of cooperation) or incurring an untrustworthy reputation (Brosnan & Bshary, 2010), people who desire to misinform can increase their effectiveness by being unaware of the misinformation themselves. Cues that give away deceptive intent include signs of nervousness, suppression, and cognitive load (von Hippel & Trivers, 2011). By believing their lies or excuses to be actually true, deceivers can sell their fictions while obscuring the cues associated with consciously mediated deception. Furthermore, attribution of intent is critical in determining whether the deceived seeks retribution or forgives (Schweitzer et al., 2006). By maintaining that there was no intent to deceive, unaware deceivers are more likely than conscious deceivers to avoid retribution.