Home » 8th Season: 2020-2021 » 2020-2021 v.04 » Rationalization and Belief Systems

Rationalization and Belief Systems

By Suha Choi, V Form

Rationalization and Belief Systems

“Post-truth,” defined as “relating to or denoting circumstances in which objective facts are less influential in shaping public opinion than appeals to emotion and personal belief,” was selected as Oxford Dictionary’s word of the year in 2016 (Oxford Dictionaries, 2016). This definition of the term presents an interesting point of discussion: If we are living in this so-called “post-truth era” in which “belief” has a more significant impact and “appeal” to society than truth, how will it affect mankind? To help answer this question, psychologists have investigated how we construct belief systems to understand the world and behave. After examining various cognitive process models that explain how such belief systems are formed on the individual level, I realized that rationalization is integral: we rationalize all the time to understand the behaviors of ourselves and others better. As Cushman (2020) pointed out, rationalization is indeed one of the most exhaustively documented in psychological investigation: cognitive dissonance (Festinger 1962) and self-perception (Nisbett & Wilson 1977); both have rationalization at their heart. This essay, however, will focus on the process of rationalization on the collective level than on the individual level because we are “deeply social animals” and our ecological success significantly depends on “our capacity to exchange and aggregate information” (Henrich, 2015; Richerson & Boyd, 2008) and form beliefs on the collective level. Graham (2020) poignantly pointed out, “when groups collectively rationalize their actions, entire networks of beliefs and desires can be created and maintained in the form of shared moral narratives and system-justifying ideologies.” At times, however, these cases of collective rationalization come “at the expense of the truth” and can therefore result in ethical consequences in society. Borrowing Cushman’s representational exchange concept to explain individuals’ mental processes that produce beliefs, I will first point out that our tendency to believe what is useful over true is inextricably linked to social learning. While this tendency originates from the fact that humans are social beings, I argue that we can ultimately utilize this sociability to externalize the socially learned psychological processes which have previously been left implicit in our mind. Doing so will increase human flourishing; cooperative communication with our social partners can correct our existing beliefs as well as reduce the possibility of forming inaccurate inferences about the world in the future.

Cushman (2020) proposes that representational exchange equips us to “represent any information in the manner best suited to the particular tasks that require it.” It is therefore an important psychological mechanism that explains the ways we use ‘reasoning, habits, instincts, and norms’ to make adaptive choices (Cushman, 2020). The crucial function of representational exchange in the context of this essay is, however, its manifestation of the connection between rationalization and theory of mind. They characterize two separate pathways of social learning, which provide a useful explanation for why we favor adaptive choices over truth (Cushman, 2020). In the model of social learning given by Cushman (2020), “normative conformity,” which refers to decisions that an individual makes based on norms, is rationalized to form beliefs that are not essentially true. This is because the belief that one can improve one’s own fitness by copying others (Cushman, 2020) is common in society. For example, if girl A decides to avoid flies, girl B may also avoid flies through social learning and rationalize this action to believe that flies are dangerous (Cushman, 2020). Alternatively, through “theory of mind,” if girl A decides to avoid flies, girl B will understand that as “girl A thinks they are dangerous,” and due to informational conformity, concoct the belief that flies are dangerous (Cushman, 2020). In this context, the use of rationalization and theory of mind for social learning are harmless; despite the fact that flies are, in fact, not dangerous, this false belief does not affect society in significantly negative ways.  Thus, rationalization of actions that conform to social norms can be innocuous; but what are the ways in which rationalization can, in fact, be detrimental?  

First, we will examine the psychological mechanisms behind rationalization on the individual level. According to the Bayesian model, our belief systems and rational processing are continuous works (Britannica, 2019). This means that we constantly amend our beliefs after our action is complete, even when we think that we have formed a firm belief, we are apt to change this belief over time. This rational processing, which influences the system of beliefs and desires that support reasoning, according to Cushman (2020), is the key mechanism for extracting useful information from adaptive choices. Cushman (2020) employs a plausible and the most well-known psychological theory for rationalization, which is Festinger’s theory of ‘cognitive dissonance’ (1962). Festinger posits that people tend to act in a way that ‘maximizes their desires’ that are consistent with their beliefs (Festinger, 1962). The sets of “beliefs, desires, and actions” that fit this specific principle are consonant, while the sets that do not are dissonant (Festinger, 1962). Festinger (1962) crucially points out that the state of dissonance is psychologically aversive, which motivates people to achieve consonance. In this process of trying to achieve consonance, one can easily neglect truth to rationalize their behavior. For example, even if one’s actions may be morally or ethically “wrong,” such as killing a man, the criminal could rationalize and “believe” that it was self-defense, even if this were not true. Thus, this psychological process of rationalization, in which truth can be ignored or dismissed due to one’s desire to believe what is more useful, can lead to morally and ethically questionable individual actions. However, cognitive dissonance is just one of many accounts for rationalization. Cushman (2020) also introduces “Bem’s theory of self-perception” (1967) to his discussion. The self-perception theory,  on the other hand, asserts that “people do not have introspective access to the mechanisms that produce our behaviors” (Bem, 1967). Bem (1967) furthermore argued that “reinforcement of social partners, who demand mentalistic explanations of our behavior,” is the predominant motivation for rationalization. Although Cushman (2020) points out that Bem’s theory is flawed in that it ‘denies’ the aversive nature of cognitive dissonance, this theory nevertheless introduces another, crucial dimension to rationalization: rationalization on the collective level.

 In addition to rationalization as an internal, individual process, Cushman (2020) proposes that individuals rationalize for socially adaptive purposes; whether or not something is actually true, one is more likely to believe that it is true if his or her social partners claim so. This is because rationalization of one’s own behavior can be “obtained by rationalizing others’ behavior” (Cushman, 2020). Thus, forming beliefs is inextricably linked to cultural selection that ensures that societal and cultural norms will typically be adaptive (Boyd et al, 2011). Graham (2020) elaborates on this idea in his discussion of rationalization that occurs at the collective levels of groups, societies and cultures. He illuminates on the fact that collective rationalization, which forms truth as a social construct, can be dangerous (Graham, 2020). Unlike Cushman who argues that rationalization is a psychological mechanism that predominantly improves the ‘welfare of the organism’ (Cushman, 2020), Graham argues that ‘collective rationalization highlights the dangers of representational exchange. Rather than simple extractions of useful information from non-rational sources, these cases can involve motivated justifications or even denials of heinous past actions’ (Graham, 2020). Of course, Graham does not deny the fact that “system justification and shared narratives about the moral exceptionalism of the in-group can be advantageous, in forming a loyal and orderly collective body” (Graham, 2020).  However, there is a caveat: “these useful fictions come at the expense of the truth” (Graham, 2020). Collective rationalization and system justification can impact “ideological and moral beliefs” that can become central to one’s identity (Kruger & Dunning 1999; Jost et al. 2003) and quite resistant to change. Regardless of contradicting evidence and truth that exist outside of the justified and rationalized shared-belief, members of a community could dismiss such evidence and even experience “altered memory” and “perceptual judgment” to avoid giving up on this shared belief (Van Bavel & Pereira 2018). Thus, despite how useful this shared-belief may be for social cohesion, the rejection of truth in favor of a collectively justified and rationalized belief can have dangerous consequences. Take distortion of historical narratives as an example. Afua Hirsch (2018) writes a poignant piece in the Guardian about the dangers of manipulating the public psyche by instilling patriotic sentiments through biased narratives of certain historical figures such as Winston Churchill. Through constant glorification of the political figure as a war hero that led Great Britain to victory in WWII, his controversial actions such as advocating the use of chemical weapons primarily against Kurds and Afghans and calling them “uncivilized tribes,” were rationalized and dismissed by the public (Hirsch, 2018). The empowering idea that Churchill was a war hero and a larger-than-life figure was a ‘shared-belief’ by many British people created a sense of cohesion (Hirsch, 2018). However, by hiding the truth behind “the heinous past actions” (Graham, 2020) he can be accounted for, those who were victims of such vicious colonization suffer to this day.

Thus, this essay has now established the fact that individuals’ tendency to believe what is useful over true has dangerous consequences on society. If this tendency diminishes human flourishing, then, how should we resist it? First, on the individual level, metacognition—the understanding of how to regulate one’s own cognitive processes to maximize learning— is integral. In contrast to rationalization which was driven by the purpose of finding reasons to justify our past actions, metacognition motivates us to detect flaws in our mental processes and equips us for self-correction. Thus, metacognition allows  individuals to actively monitor our own learning strategies and resources, so that they can correct their actions in the future (Bransford et al, 2000). However, how will we overcome this tendency on the collective level, as a society? 

I would like to propose Tomasello’s theory of “joint intentionality” (Tomasello, 2014) as an account that provides insights into how we can answer this question. In contrast to the internal process of rationalization that can be detrimental to society on a collective level as posited by Graham (2020), this concept of “shared intentionality” suggests that making ‘explicit many aspects’ of our own “psychological processes left implicit in previous forms of communication” through discourse leads to a more “agent-neutral, ‘objective’ thinking… aimed at truth” (Tomasello, 2014). Discourse allows us to become more predictable, leading us to more “efficient cooperation, which is essential for the flourishing of social animals like us” (Tomasello, 2014). If each individual is able to “predict how others will behave, we can more efficiently play our part in joint actions” to become more faithful to truth (Levy, 2020). Thus, unlike the internal psychological mechanisms of belief formation such as rationalization, open communication and cultural learning of externalized beliefs will allow us to increase human flourishing. Challenging the status quo and resisting non-rational ideas that have been instilled in humanity such as xenophobia and racism (Haselton et al, 2016) are examples of what could be reached through discourse with others. We “thrive only by collaborating and communicating cooperatively with social partners” (Tomasello, 2014).

Humans, as social beings, constantly succumb to the need to conform and rationalize even ‘at the expense of truth.’ However, I have argued that an externalization of our thoughts through communication with others will prevent us from forming these adaptive yet untrue beliefs. While the term ‘post-truth’ points out that we so often neglect objective facts in favor of beliefs that appeal to us, the fact that this word was chosen as word of the year reflects the increasing awareness of our flaw; we are experiencing collective metacognition! The recent emergence of the Black Lives Matter movement and the rising emphasis on the Socratic discussion method in educational institutions are far more than mere coincidence – they are examples that demonstrate the progress in our endeavors to affirm truthfulness in our beliefs and decision-making.

Suha is a V Form boarding student from Seongnam, Korea. She loves studying Latin, psychology, and journalism. She is also a big coffee lover although she can’t handle caffeine very well at times.

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