We’ve all been there: standing in a shop, staring at a product we don’t really need but somehow feel compelled to buy. Or maybe it’s not a physical item; perhaps it’s a decision to stay in a job that’s not fulfilling, or to maintain a relationship that’s more draining than rewarding.
In these moments, our minds become experts at rationalising choices that, deep down, we know aren’t necessary. But why does this happen? And what can we do about it?
The psychology behind rationalisation
Rationalisation is a defence mechanism that allows us to justify decisions, actions, or beliefs that are actually irrational or socially unacceptable. It’s a way for our minds to make peace with the cognitive dissonance we experience when our actions don’t align with our values or beliefs. A 2012 study found that people are more likely to rationalise their choices after they’ve made them, particularly when they can’t reverse the decision. This is often referred to as “post-purchase rationalisation” in consumer psychology.
The role of societal norms and expectations
Societal norms and expectations play a significant role in our rationalisation process. We often find ourselves justifying choices based on what we think is expected of us, rather than what we genuinely want or need. For example, the societal expectation to own a home can lead people to rationalise taking on a mortgage they can’t really afford. A 2015 study showed that societal norms significantly influence people’s choices, even when those choices are not in their best interest.
The impact on mental health
Constantly rationalising unnecessary choices can take a toll on our mental health. It can lead to stress, anxiety, and even depression when we realise that our actions are not aligned with our true desires or values. The mental gymnastics required to keep up the facade can be exhausting.It can also lead to a cycle of making more poor choices, which we then have to rationalise further, creating a vicious circle.
Breaking the cycle
So, how can we break this cycle of false necessity? The first step is awareness. Being aware of the fact that you’re rationalising a choice is half the battle. Once you’re aware, you can take steps to challenge these rationalisations. Ask yourself: “Do I really need this? Is this choice aligned with my values? What will be the long-term impact of this decision?” Taking a step back to evaluate the situation can provide valuable insights and help you make choices that are more aligned with your true self.
The power of informed choices
Making informed choices involves a level of self-awareness and self-reflection that can free us from the cycle of rationalisation. It’s about taking the time to understand why you’re making a particular choice and whether it serves your long-term goals and values. Informed choices are empowering because they come from a place of understanding, rather than a need to justify or rationalise.
Rationalising unnecessary choices is a common human behaviour, influenced by a range of psychological and societal factors. While it’s a natural defence mechanism, it can have negative consequences for our mental health and well-being. By becoming more aware of when we’re rationalising and making more informed choices, we can break the cycle and live more authentically.
Karla Whitman is a freelance writer specialising in psychology and behavioural sciences.