In another article, I mentioned that whenever you give a reason for your conclusion, you should pause to make sure it passes the Laugh Test.
Yes, the “Laugh Test.”
Sometimes your reason will turn out to be a patent rationalization, and you won’t be able to repeat it without grimacing. A rationalization is a pseudo-reason that substitutes for the real reason because the real reason is unknown or unpalatable.
For example, imagine you are ready to start work on the most difficult, most important work of the day, when it occurs to you that you should check your email, “just in case there’s something important there.” That reason just doesn’t pass muster. There’s something important in front of you — and a hundred distractions in your email inbox. It’s a rationalization for avoiding the hard work you just sat down to do. When you realize how lame that reason is, you’ve got to laugh.
Or at least I hope you will. Responding to such mistakes with laughter, not self-condemnation, puts you in an excellent state to do the work you need to do. You need to figure out what your real motivation is without prejudice. But you do not know how to evaluate the rationalization until you investigate further.
After all, rationalizations can occur to you innocently. They do not necessarily mean anything in particular, except that you haven’t yet identified a good reason for your decision.
For example, I remember an incident from when I was an undergraduate that shows how easy it is to make a decision without knowing the real reason. I was in the dorm dining hall, having just made myself a waffle and buttered it, when my friend Maria asked me if I wanted syrup. I said no, I used sugar, “fewer calories.” She looked at me skeptically and said, “I don’t think so — not with six pats of butter on your waffle.”
I remember being embarrassed and surprised. She was absolutely right. Those were the good old days when I was oblivious to how many calories I was eating. I wasn’t dieting. I wasn’t trying to diet. The best I can reconstruct it, I asked myself, “why do I use sugar?” and it occurred to me that I put less sugar on my waffles than most people put syrup, which results in fewer calories. So I blurted that out.
It was only when I started to write up this story that I asked myself more seriously, why do I use granulated sugar instead of syrup? I didn’t know offhand! I remember when I switched. I was at Girl Scout camp, which had only fake syrup, which I detested. So I switched to putting sugar on pancakes and the like. But ever since then, I’ve used sugar even when real maple syrup was available.
In writing this story, I finally really put some thought into it. Here’s why I use sugar: I prefer the texture of butter and sugar to the gloppiness of syrup. Even now, probably 25 years after my last waffle smothered in butter and sugar, I salivate when I remember that crunchy greasy combination. Yum. And I recoil slightly when I think of how syrup would make everything soggy and sticky in my mouth.
Who knew? I didn’t.
It was not obvious to me why I used sugar instead of syrup. My subconscious threw up “fewer calories” as a hypothesis. I grabbed that idea unthinkingly, when a few minutes of thought could have given me an accurate reason.
This particular incident was embarrassing in hindsight — and may have given Maria a poor opinion of me — but it had no particular import. It was caught and corrected in my mind. The real problem comes when a rationalization is motivated, and is neither caught nor corrected.
A rationalization is “motivated” when the truth is known but unpleasant. For example, it’s common to blame being late on last-minute emergencies (something outside of your control), instead of a failure to plan enough buffer time to accommodate any last-minute difficulties at all (something in your control, for which you are responsible). In these cases, when the plausible, more pleasant idea occurs to you, it is appealing, in part because it diverts attention away from the guilt-producing alternative.
Nothing is ever gained by ignoring unpleasant truths, but rationalizations can occur to you with such speed and plausibility that you may not realize what’s happening. That’s why it’s helpful and important to take the Laugh Test to catch obvious rationalizations.
Let’s stipulate that no one reading this article would be consciously dishonest. No one would deliberately try to deceive himself about the truth behind his decision. The great risk for the honest person is that the rationalization could be automatized. The real reason could be tied to “old baggage” — painful issues that have been repressed, and are not easily accessible.
Usually when you have “old baggage” in the background, your subconscious will offer up a plausible alternative explanation. The first time a plausible rationalization occurs to you, you may be fooled by it. But if you keep testing to see if your reasons pass the laugh test, you’ll eventually see there is something fishy.
For example, suppose you stay up past your bedtime “just to get one more thing done — one night with less sleep won’t matter.” The first time this idea occurs to you, it might be plausible. If every night you struggle to get to bed on time, and every night you want to stay up “just to get one more thing done,” over time your track record will show that the desire to “just get one more thing done” is part of the reason that you don’t get enough sleep. When that same reasoning leads to failure again and again, you realize it is bogus. There is some deeper, less palatable reason that you are not going to bed on time.
It’s quite unpleasant to catch your own rationalizations. It’s embarrassing to see that you were taken in by a fake explanation. It’s shocking to realize you’ve been avoiding the real reason. But these negatives pale in comparison to the havoc created by not knowing the real reason that underlies your motivation.
If you catch a hint of rationalization in your thinking, it is a huge warning bell indicating you have a lead to significant new information that needs to be factored into your decision. You need to stop and think a little more deeply, so you can know the truth.
That’s the payoff from taking the Laugh Test.