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We are all capable of finding reasons to not action, to not be courageous.  Psychologists call them rationalizations.

Rationalizations are a defence mechanism we use to make excuses as to why we didn’t take or make difficult decisions, or to avoid truths being examined.  Examples include “I didn’t get that job but that’s okay as I didn’t really want it” as a rationalization for not being good enough or “I wasn’t as bad as the others” to justify poor behaviour.

However, rationalizations can also be used to justify unethical or morally wrong actions e.g. “I was told to do it by my manager” (a common rationalization in most corporate scandals); or to avoid taking courageous action e.g. “I have a family to feed” for explaining why someone didn’t alert authorities to wrongdoing.

Some common rationalizations include;

• Obedience to authority

The Milgram Experiments are a famous example of ‘obedience to authority’ in action.  In the 1960’s, Milgram ran experiments with Yale students where he instructed volunteers to apply electric shocks to ‘learners’ (in fact associates of Milgram) who got answers wrong.  Despite clear indications that the shocks were real and potentially dangerous (in fact they weren’t real) Milgram’s volunteers continued to follow orders of lab assistants and ‘shock’ the learners despite (eventually) ‘screams’ of pain.

Milgram’s conclusion, often used to explain the actions of ordinary Germans during the holocaust, was that the volunteers continued to administer shocks because they wanted to obey authority.

• Groupthink

Groupthink is a situation that occurs amongst a group whose primary goal is to seek consensus or harmony and they do so by avoiding conflict and by avoiding outside influences.  The Bay of Pigs invasion by the USA is often cited as an example of groupthink, where advisors to Kennedy sought consensus with the Presidents ideas rather than critically examining the feasibility of such an action.

The rationalization of groupthink is often heard in excuses such as “no-one disagreed with the decision”.

• False consensus

False consensus rationalizations occur when people believe that their views, values and beliefs are ‘normal’ and that most people think like they do.  It is more common in groups with a strong collective beliefs and because they tend to hear very little disbelief from within the group, think their views reflect the majority e.g. any political party has this tendency.

Common excuses include “this is acceptable behaviour in my team” and “everyone else does it”.

• Over-optimism

The rationalization of over-optimism is often heard in statements such as “don’t worry, I’ll sort it when it becomes a problem” and “I can fix it later”.

Over-optimism allows individuals to delay tough decisions or actions, thinking that they have the skills and/or time to resolve or make them at a later date.  While sometimes a valid decision, in reality most over-optimistic rationalizations simply arise as a reason for taking no action.

• Cognitive dissonance

Cognitive dissonance rationalizations occur when an individual’s beliefs cannot be reconciled with what they see and rather than change their beliefs, they change their memory of the event.  This rationalization works on the premise that individuals cannot hold contradictory views and so in order to reduce such dissonance, the have to change either their belief or memory.  Most people find changing their memory easier than their beliefs!

An example might be when an individual sees a close work colleague stealing stationery and rather than changing their belief of their colleague as being a “good person”, they change their memory to “simply needing supplies to work from home”.

Whilst these examples highlight a number of different types of reasons why all of us are capable of finding excuses to not be courageous, simply being aware of them is one of a number of ways that we can use to combat them.