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The social function of rationalization: An identity perspective

Van Bavel, Jay JSternisko, AnniHarris, ElizabethRobertson, Claire.  ; New York Vol. 43,  (2020). DOI:10.1017/S0140525X19002097

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In “Rationalization Is Rational,” Cushman offers a serious consideration of the function of rationalization that is long overdue and represents an important contribution to the literature on human psychology. He states that “the ultimate function of belief is to represent true properties of the world, and the ultimate function of desire is to represent the fitness consequences of these properties.” (target article sect. 4.4.1, para. 13). In this commentary, we offer an additional function of rationalization. Namely, in certain social contexts, the proximal and ultimate function of beliefs and desires is social inclusion. In such contexts, rationalization often facilitates distortion of rather than approximation to truth. Understanding social identity is not only timely and important, but also critical to fully understand the function(s) of rationalization.

Although Cushman's discussion of rationalization focuses on the self, we think he understates the truly social nature of the self. In our view, any self-related process, including rationalization, must take into consideration how people categorize themselves in a social context (Turner et al. 1994). Thus, the functions of rationalization need to be understood within the context of intragroup and intergroup dynamics.

We argue that rationalization of actions and beliefs of fellow group members, and of one's own actions and beliefs in relation to these group members, can enhance the fitness of an individual by maintaining one's position in the group, even if the rationalization leads to false beliefs about the world. Rationalization and adoption of group-based beliefs can also help fulfill more proximal goals, including the need to belong, obtain status, understand the social world, and feel morally justified (Van Bavel & Pereira 2018).

The domain of politics offers extensive evidence that political identities motivate people to resist factual evidence that undercuts their group affiliation, to rationalize lies from group leaders, to believe identity-bolstering fake news,...