Rationalization

Steven Pinker writes,

Take the famous cognitive-dissonance experiments. When an experimenter got people to endure electric shocks in a sham experiment on learning, those who were given a good rationale ("It will help scientists understand learning") rated the shocks as more painful than the ones given a feeble rationale ("We’re curious.") Presumably, it’s because the second group would have felt foolish to have suffered for no good reason. Yet when these people were asked why they agreed to be shocked, they offered bogus reasons of their own in all sincerity, like "I used to mess around with radios and got used to electric shocks."

…The brain’s spin doctoring is displayed even more dramatically in neurological conditions in which the healthy parts of the brain explain away the foibles of the damaged parts (which are invisible to the self because they are part of the self). A patient who fails to experience a visceral click of recognition when he sees his wife but who acknowledges that she looks and acts just like her deduces that she is an amazingly well-trained impostor. A patient who believes he is at home and is shown the hospital elevator says without missing a beat, "You wouldn’t believe what it cost us to have that installed."

I think readers of this blog will enjoy Pinker’s entire essay.

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  • Zhong Lu

    The second example is a bad one. The man in the elevator example isn’t “rationalizing.” He’s making a clever joke to cover up the embarassment of being disoriented.

    Otherwise an informative and thought-provoking article. Thank you for the link.

  • TGGP

    I suspect that Pinker is more familiar with the story which he is citing and that the person in question persisted in claiming that he was at his home even after he made the remark about the elevator.