How to Rationalize Anything: The Lesson of 2020

“Any belief worth embracing will stand up to the litmus test of scrutiny. If we have to qualify, rationalize, make exceptions for, or turn a blind eye to maintain a belief, then it may well be time to release that belief.” Laurie Buchanan, PhD.

This year has been a exploration of the capacity of humans to rationalize anything. So the best lesson this year has given us is a reminder to examine closely what we believe. Is it the product of rationalization? Or is it founded upon solid facts and values?

Rationalizing Cruelty

The year has been cruel. Around the world 1.6 million people have died from COVID-19. More than 3,000 people are dying daily in the U.S. alone. But this is not the case everywhere. Australia, for example, has come close to eliminating the virus. The country adopted strict measures and closed ranks across political fault lines. Epidemiologist Marylouise McLaws described the bonds of trust:

“Regardless of who you vote for, most Australians would agree their leaders have a real care for their constituents and a following of science. I think that helped dramatically.”

In sharp contrast, we also see people rationalize cruelty and indifference to suffering. Mitchell, SD, is suffering with deaths and illness from the pandemic. The suffering has been so great that it prompted the community at long last to consider asking everyone to wear masks in public. But that is not going down well. Diane Kenkel, a nurse practitioner who runs a health clinic in Mitchell, describes the difficulty in getting a patient to cover his face in the clinic:

“He said he couldn’t breathe in it and didn’t believe the whole pandemic thing anyway. People were dying from pneumonia because they were being forced to wear masks, he told her.”

A rationale we hear frequently is that nothing could have been done to prevent this. But the experience in Australia and other countries tells us this is false.

Rationalizing Our Biases

If nothing else, 2020 has taught us vigilance. Seeing people rationalize senseless death has left us less willing to accept excuses for other forms of cruelty. As a result, 2020 may mark a turning point in a long and ugly history of systemic racism. We are simply sick of the excuses for it. Sick of hearing people tell us that they don’t like feeling guilty about it.

It is time to release some of our false beliefs and biases. The list is long – racism, sexism, and body shaming are high on that list. If 2021 can bring us less of those, it can’t come soon enough.

For a deeper dive on rationalization, click here and here.

Subway, painting © Steve Hammond / flickr

Subscribe by email to follow the accumulating evidence and observations that shape our view of health, obesity, and policy.


December 13, 2020

6 Responses to “How to Rationalize Anything: The Lesson of 2020”

  1. December 13, 2020 at 9:53 am, John DiTraglia said:

    amen amen I say to you

  2. December 13, 2020 at 4:01 pm, Louise Baur said:

    I’m from Australia. You are correct when you comment upon the Australian response to the pandemic. Our elected leaders – across the political spectrum and at Federal and State level – worked closely with our public health officials and many other experts to develop an ongoing response to the COVID-19 pandemic. That helped our broader community largely trust and act upon the advice that came through.

    We can be thankful for thoughtful leadership across the political divide, a willingness of political leaders to engage over the long-term with experts on this issue, a pre-existing good public health system, and the community’s sense of responsibility for others and a resultant expectation that government will be there to facilitate this.

    We’re by no means out of the pandemic. We in Australia will need to keep learning how to respond to different types of threats that will emerge from COVID-19. It order to do so it will be vital that we continue to promote thoughtful interactions between political leaders, public officials, scientists, other experts and community members.

    • December 13, 2020 at 5:17 pm, Ted said:

      Thoughtful interactions. I love that concept. I believe we can aim for that. Thanks for taking time to offer this perspective, Louise.

  3. December 13, 2020 at 5:27 pm, David Brown said:

    As I see it, rationalization is not as big a problem as ignorance. A belief, after all, is whatever a person chooses to accept as true. Do masks work? We can’t tell with certainty. All we know for certain is that a lots of people are panicked for lack of knowledge and understanding. Perhaps this will calm things a bit.

    • December 14, 2020 at 4:21 am, Ted said:

      David, I think we can be both calm and prudent. But, to be clear, I will not be posting links on this site to misinformation suggesting that COVID-19 is comparable to the common cold. That is a lie. I have friends and neighbors whose lives have been devastated and lost to this disease. And while it is difficult to be absolutely certain of anything regarding prevention, we can be pretty confident, based on good science, that masks do reduce the risk of infection. Misinformation has no place here.

  4. December 13, 2020 at 5:32 pm, Jennie Brand-Miller said:

    And respect for others, even when opinions differ.