Sweet and Sour Grapes: The dangers rationalization


What happens when you break your own moral code? (No, you don’t become a Democrat or a Republican.) Answer: It depends on the strength of your defense mechanisms. We all build defense mechanisms to protect us from unpleasant psychological consequences (such as feelings of guilt and shame) when we do something wrong and even when we merely think we did something wrong. Unfortunately our defense mechanisms turn against us when we convince ourselves we did nothing wrong when in fact we did do something wrong. Confused?

It is easier to understand if we look at an example such as Aesop’s fable The Fox and the Grapes:

“One hot summer’s day a Fox was strolling through an orchard till he came to a bunch of Grapes just ripening on a vine which had been trained over a lofty branch. ‘Just the thing to quench my thirst’, quoth he. Drawing back a few paces, he took a run and a jump, and just missed the branch. Turning round with a One, Two, Three, he jumped up, but with no greater success. Again and again he tried after the tempting morsel, but at last had to give it up, and walked away with his nose in the air, saying: ‘I am sure they are sour.’”

Dr. Neel Burton says this of the fox in his Psychology Today article titled Self-Deception I: Rationalization:

“In the case of Aesop’s fox, the cognitive dissonance arises from the cognitions ‘I am an agile and nimble fox’ and ‘I can’t reach the grapes on the branch’, and the rationalization, which is a form of sour grapes, is ‘I am sure the grapes are sour.’”

We, like the fox, rationalize in order to construct a defense mechanism to protect our pride, our integrity, our reputation, our inflated sense of ability, or, in some cases, to shield us from the deep sense of shame and guilt when we behave poorly towards others or after we have violated our own moral code in some way. If a person has no shame or guilt after behaving poorly towards others, he or she may have elements of psychopathy in their personality. If most of my friends and family say I messed up and hurt people, but I can’t see it, the odds are something is wrong in my world. If the fox rationalizes that he did jump high enough to eat the grapes even though everyone watching saw him fail, the fox has a serious problem—he has become delusional.

Most Christians have heard that King David was a man close to God’s own heart. Even when David committed adultery and murder, he remained close to God’s heart. How can this be? There are many reasons why God had a special place in his heart for David, but I have a theory as to what made David different from most of us and why this trait endeared him to God. David did not construct elaborate self-defense mechanisms nor did he try to rationalize his actions when confronted with the truth. This is such a rare quality in the human race that David stood out in God’s eyes. You see, rationalizing is a form of lying. We lie to ourselves and we lie to others, we even blame others in a futile effort to keep our sacrosanct defense mechanism from crumbling. It started in The Garden when Eve rationalized her epic fail by saying “The serpent deceived me, and I ate.” Adam rationalized his cowardly fail by attempting to pass the buck when he said “The woman you put here with me—she gave me some fruit from the tree, and I ate it.” Apparently we have not changed since The Garden.

Here’s the thing: I believe with all my heart that God wants to help us break through our rationalizations and defense mechanisms so that we can experience the relief found in his healing and restoration, but we have to sincerely ask for his help. And the key word is “sincerely.” Of course this requires that we . . . (wait for it) . . . humble ourselves.


Posted on October 17, 2015, in Uncategorized and tagged , , , , , , , , , , , , . Bookmark the permalink. Leave a comment.

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