Rationalization is a defense mechanism that involves the justification of an unacceptable behavior, thought or feeling in a logical manner, avoiding the true reason for the action. This defensive maneuver is often called “making excuses.”
People who rationalize know on some level (conscious or unconscious) that they have done something unwise or ill-advised and therefore concoct a reason (or many reasons) for why they felt or behaved as they did. Quite often, rationalization is used to avoid feelings of anxiety, guilt or other negative emotions. It may also be used to protect one’s self-esteem or self-concept.
For example, a man who had cheated on his wife and doesn’t want to confess may say, “Telling her would hurt her even more” in order to make himself feel less guilty about the dishonesty (while the real reason is that he’s afraid she will leave him). Or a person who applies for a job but doesn’t get it may say, “I didn’t really want that job anyway,” in order to avoid feelings of disappointment and rejection.
People who rationalize their behavior may be conscious that their motivation is to save themselves from pain or disgrace, or they may be unconscious, meaning that they truly believe or even talk themselves into what they are saying (usually to protect themselves from internal feelings of shame).
The term rationalization was introduced to the field of psychoanalysis by British neurologist and psychoanalyst Ernest Jones in 1908. The word was then adopted by psychoanalyst Sigmund Freud to describe the various excuses used by his patients to explain their neuroses.
Example: A person purchases a luxury car and then justifies the purchase by telling people how old and unsafe their old vehicle was.