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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.