Understanding Rationalization: Making Excuses as an Effective Manipulation Tactic

Effective manipulation tactics simultaneously put others on the defensive while also obscuring or denying the malevolent intent of the person using them. Such tactics are particularly effective on neurotic individuals — especially those who always want to think the best of people and who strive hard to understand what would make a person behave in a problematic way.

I recently finished posting a series of articles on the erroneous patterns of thinking common to individuals with significant disturbances of character. The next series of posts will explore some behavior patterns that typically accompany those erroneous patterns of thinking.

Disordered characters tend to engage in certain automatic (i.e., habitual, but nonetheless conscious and deliberate) behaviors that simultaneously serve the purposes of justifying antisocial behavior, resisting any subordination of their wills to a higher authority, manipulating and controlling others, and managing the impressions others have of them and the nature of their character. In the end, by frequently engaging in these behaviors disturbed characters reinforce in their own minds the notion that their preferred way of doing things is okay and there is no need to change their ways of relating to others.

Some of the “tactics” disturbed characters use to avoid responsibility and manipulate others have been traditionally viewed as ego defense mechanisms, arising out of the erroneous but still common notion that everyone feels badly to some degree when they want act on their primal urges and against the interest of the greater good. As a result, it was presumed that everyone exhibiting such behaviors was “defending” against feelings of shame and guilt. But, as I have pointed out before, all metaphors can be stretched beyond their capacity to be useful, and traditional metaphors about why people do the things they do become greatly strained when trying to understand and deal with disordered characters. (See “Shame, Guilt and Character Development”.)

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The concept of defense mechanisms becomes the most greatly tested when we’re trying to truly understand the behavioral habits and tactics of the disordered character. When it comes to understanding and dealing with the disturbed character, many of the behaviors we have traditionally thought of as defense mechanisms are better viewed as automatic (although conscious and deliberate) behaviors that simultaneously serve to justify or excuse antisocial behavior, obstruct the internalization of pro-social values (avoid responsibility), effectively manipulate and control others who don’t quite understand the true intentions and motivations of the disordered character, and manage the impressions others have so as to keep any social pressure to change at bay.

The manipulation and responsibility avoidance tactics disordered characters employ are too numerous to list. In fact, almost any behavior can and has been used at one time or another by a disturbed character as a means to avoid responsibility and manipulate others. This series of posts will examine some of the more common tactics, beginning with rationalization.

Sometimes the disordered character will go to great lengths to attempt to “justify” a behavior he knows is wrong or knows others regard as wrong. Disturbed characters are forever making excuses for their harmful or hurtful conduct. They have an answer for everything they’re challenged about. When others confront them, they come up with a litany of reasons why their behavior was justified. In my work with disordered characters, I’ve heard literally thousands of excuses for irresponsible behavior.

Now the traditional thinking on rationalization of course is that it is an unconscious defense mechanism. The theory behind this is that a person unknowingly tries to alleviate pangs of guilt by finding some way to grant legitimacy to their behavior. But if someone really is feeling pangs of guilt, the uneasiness they feel about their behavior is internal. So, when rationalization as a defense mechanism is truly employed, the exculpating dialogue that takes place is internal. When disturbed characters use the responsibility-avoidance tactic of rationalization (alternately: justification, or excuse-making) they’re not primarily trying to reconcile their conduct with their consciences, but rather trying to manipulate others into getting off their case by getting them to “buy into” the excuses they make. Their rationalizations are part of an external dialogue designed to cast the disturbed character as not as bad a person as others might otherwise think he is. So, their excuses are also part of their impression management scheme. Habitually attempting to justify behaviors they know are regarded by most people as clearly wrong is also another way the disturbed character resists internalizing appropriate standards of conduct and controls and therefore makes it ever more likely he will engage in the wrongful behavior again.

The responsibility-avoidance behaviors I’ll be posting about are also effective manipulation tools because when used effectively by the disordered character, they simultaneously put others on the defensive while obscuring or denying the malevolent intent of the person using the tactic. The tactics are particularly effective on neurotic individuals, especially those who always want to think the best of people and who strive hard to understand what would make a person behave in a problematic way.

Possibly the most important point I make in my book, In Sheep’s Clothing, in my other writings, and in all my workshops, is that it’s important to understand the mode of behavior (i.e., the mindset and emotional state) the disordered character is in when he is in the process of using the tactics. He is not in the defensive mode. It may appear so, especially to someone who has been indoctrinated with traditional notions about the motivations of behavior, and especially when some of the tactics can prompt a good neurotic who is confronting negative behavior to feel like an attacker. But at the very moment the disturbed character is making excuses (rationalizing), blaming others (scapegoating), etc. he is primarily fighting. When you confront a disordered character about a harmful behavior, he is more than likely fully aware of the pro-social principle at stake. For example, when you point out that he was wrong to strike his wife, he understands very well that society frowns this kind of behavior. So, when he starts with the tactics — “She is always pushing my buttons” (blaming others); “I didn’t really hurt her” (minimizing); and “Am I supposed to always just take it?” (playing the victim) — he is well aware that society wants him to accept and submit to the principle that it’s not okay to strike your spouse. He’s also aware how civilized persons view the kind of people who, despite society’s rules, engage in such behavior. But he’s still actively resisting submission to this principle and fighting against internalizing the value. He also doesn’t want you on his case or to see him as the uncivilized sort that he is. He wants you to back off, accept his justifications, and keep the kind of image of him he wants you to have. So, whenever a disturbed character uses these tactics, you know one thing for absolute certain: he will do it again. He’ll do it again because the use of the tactic testifies to the fact that he’s still at war with the principle. He’s fighting the very socialization process that could civilize him. You could say that he’s defending his ego, but that would be a relatively insignificant point and a distortion of the bigger picture. The main thing to remember is that when he engages in these behaviors, he is primarily fighting submission to the principles that serve the greater good and simultaneously trying to manipulate you into seeing things his way.

Keeping all of the aforementioned principles in mind, in the next several posts we’ll be exploring more examples of the more common tactics which disturbed characters use to manipulate and control others and to resist becoming responsible.

All clinical material on this site is peer reviewed by one or more clinical psychologists or other qualified mental health professionals. This specific article was originally published by on and was last reviewed or updated by Dr Greg Mulhauser, Managing Editor on .

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