Scientific Evidence for the Rationalization Hamster

In my recent Internet travels I was pointed to a fascinating excerpt from “The Ethical Brain,” by UC-Santa Barbara brain scientist Michael Gazzaniga. In it he discusses the brain’s apparently built-in hardware for integrating new knowledge and input into a unified personal storyline, a congruent sense of self. In many cases new input is dramatically re-interpreted to maintain a prior conviction, or justifications that never existed are simply made up so as to not upset the mind’s self-image.

I put down my beer and said, “Damn! That sounds a lot like the infamous rationalization hamster!”

Over the past thirty years I have been studying a phenomenon that was first revealed during work with split-brain patients, who’d had the connections between the two brain hemispheres severed to relieve severe epilepsy. My colleagues and I weren’t looking for the answer to the question of what makes us seem unified, but we think we found it. It follows from the idea that if the brain is modular, a part of the brain must be monitoring all the networks’ behaviors and trying to interpret their individual actions in order to create a unified idea of the self. Our best candidate for this brain area is the “left-hemisphere interpreter.”Beyond the finding, described in the last chapter, that the left hemisphere makes strange input logical, it includes a special region that interprets the inputs we receive every moment and weaves them into stories to form the ongoing narrative of our self-image and our beliefs. I have called this area of the left hemisphere the interpreter because it seeks explanations for internal and external events and expands on the actual facts we experience to make sense of, or interpret, the events of our life.

Experiments on split-brain patients reveal how readily the left brain interpreter can make up stories and beliefs. In one experiment, for example, when the word walk was presented only to the right side of a patient’s brain, he got up and started walking. When he was asked why he did this, the left brain (where language is stored and where the word walk was not presented) quickly created a reason for the action: “I wanted to go get a Coke.”

The left-hemisphere interpreter is not only a master of belief creation, but it will stick to its belief system no matter what. Patients with “reduplicative paramnesia,” because of damage to the brain, believe that there are copies of people or places. In short, they will remember another time and mix it with the present. As a result, they will create seemingly ridiculous, but masterful, stories to uphold what they know to be true due to the erroneous messages their damaged brain is sending their intact interpreter. One such patient believed the New York hospital where she was being treated was actually her home in Maine. When her doctor asked how this could be her home if there were elevators in the hallway, she said, “Doctor, do you know how much it cost me to have those put in?” The interpreter will go to great lengths to make sure the inputs it receives are woven together to make sense—even when it must make great leaps to do so. Of course, these do not appear as “great leaps” to the patient, but rather as clear evidence from the world around him or her.

Any time our left brain is confronted with information that does not jibe with our self-image, knowledge, or conceptual framework, our left-hemisphere interpreter creates a belief to enable all incoming information to make sense and mesh with our ongoing idea of our self. The interpreter seeks patterns, order, and causal relationships.

Imagine that – dedicated neural circuitry runs away with rationalization even in the face of contradictory evidence because it’s the only way it can deal with a threat to the mind’s identity. By way of example, I’ll cite a discussion from Donlak at Paradigm Shift (hat tip to In Mala Fide):

Adam: Ok, text her this: M or E?

Billy: Huh?

Adam: Don’t worry it doesn’t have to be real – she’ll text back if she’s interested in you, and ask you what you just asked me. Just repeat the question.

Billy: And when she answers?

Adam: Say, yeah, I’ll enjoy M better, good call. Then ignore her texts until tomorrow.

Billy: Why would I ignore them? This is stupid.

Adam: Her hamster wheel will be spinning trying to figure out what you were talking about, she’ll wonder why you’re being so cryptic, she’ll be thinking about you the entire time. She’ll wonder if E or M means girls.

Billy:I don’t want to play games with this girl, I want her to like me for me.

Billy then texts her to go out, to which an hour later she replies that she’s busy tonight. He of course asks her out tomorrow. No reply to his text.

Running game isn’t about not being you, it’s about getting the chance for her to see the real you down the road

This example also brings up a fallacy of game haters, that game or the man who runs it is “fake.” In fact, when used properly to augment a man’s personality, it’s the only thing that can give him the chance to be _real_ – by building social value with people, the traits and quirks of his real personality will be accepted when it’s time to bring them out.

…which is a topic for a critical future post.


Filed under primary sources, science+technology

25 responses to “Scientific Evidence for the Rationalization Hamster

  1. jack

    “You’re not a slut just because you like really big carrots.”

    [I was wondering if anyone would notice that detail.]

  2. This is pure speculation, but maybe the corpus callosum has something to do with rationalization?

    Its 30% larger in women:

  3. CSPB

    That was my thought too. Let me expand on this theory. Since women have a larger corpus callosum, their left and right sides of the brain are better integrated. Thus the left interpreter has a greater influence over factual beliefs in women and the “sense of self” is therefore more closely policed. In a male brain, the left interpreter has less influence so a man may be able to consider contrary things more readily without threatening his “sense of self.” This should reduce the tendency to discard or reform discordant information in males. A male may therefore be more creative in developing new ideas, new inventions because his right brain has more freedom to process such information before it is quashed by the left interpreter.

    In a nutshell, it is possible that such consideration is not as threatening to the self in males as it is in females. This is just a theory so take some shots at it and/or expand upon it.

  4. @CSPB:

    This is fascinating. Anecdotally, I have noticed that women seem to use very high levels of abstraction to explain alot of very mundane phenomena.

    For example: “He’s emotionally unavailable.”

    I once joked to my girlfriend that women should all be post-graduate level mathematicians given their fondness for abstraction and generalisation:

    But the vast majority of great artists, mathematicians, scientists and inventors are male. So are the majority of idle dreamers and kranks.

    I don’t know what to make of it all.

  5. CSPB


    I don’t think of that as abstraction. It just seems abstract because it doesn’t make sense to the male brain. In fact it is “concreteness” in females, because the contrary idea is discarded since it does not match the woman’s self image and conceptual framework. That framework is concrete and discordant concepts are discarded by use of rationalization. You just think it is abstract because you don’t follow the logic. She spins a tale and you label it abstract because it is non-sensical.

  6. @CSPB:

    “You just think it is abstract because you don’t follow the logic. She spins a tale and you label it abstract because it is non-sensical.”

    Ha ha! Sounds about right.

  7. Paige

    Can I use your comment on my blog?

  8. CSPB

    Paige, feel free. I want to know other’s opinions and see this topic explored.

  9. Pingback: Women and Rationalization « Raise Your Glass

  10. MW

    Awww, she’s such a cute and furry little thing; eating her carrot, nom nom nom!

  11. CSPB

    Paige posted on this subject by citing my comment.

    Here is my cross post, which I left on her blog:
    There are several posts that touch on similar things at Social Pathology Blog. Here the one that influenced my thoughts this morning when I wrote the comment that Paige referenced in her post.

  12. collegeslacker

    This is a fascinating study to say the least, great find Badger.


    Interesting theory. Although, like Workshy Joe, I have only anecdotal evidence to back me up, I’d say there is serious merit to your idea.

    Might it account for the reason so many girls that I know are so completely uninterested in broadening their interests, learning new things, or even debating effectively? I’m not being misogynistic, this is truly something I have noticed. Might it be that their sense of self has been so solidly constructed they, subconsciously or consciously, have no desire to bring in other ideas? It could also explain why most girls I know live in a bubble that is their own world.

  13. SayWhaat

    “Might it account for the reason so many girls that I know are so completely uninterested in broadening their interests, learning new things, or even debating effectively?”

    It probably has more to do with the crowd of girls you associate with than it does for womenkind in general.

    [This phenomenon is largely cultural, we are surrounded by junk culture and only the strongest can resist – in the same way that our American bodies are pudgy and lack tone because we are surrounded with unhealthy food and unhealthy lifestyles. I can’t spend more than five minutes around heavy consumers of junk culture, men or women, before my head feels like it’s going to explode.]

  14. Paige

    Collegeslackers experience fits with mine. I have a very hard time finding women who are willing to rationally debate. They seem to take any disagreement VERY personal. I have wanted an answer to this question for quite awhile, because it just never made sense. Some of the girls I know could easily out perform me in math and science college level courses but they can’t manage to have an intelligent discussion with me. It is a paradox.

    [I can’t speak to proportionality but I’ve been involved with several women who took rational disagreement as a personal slight. It was really annoying but I chalked it up to narcissism rather than left brain-right brain. I couldn’t tell if it was more an ego thing (not wanting to be wrong), or a real lack of ability on their part to operate in the rational space, or if they were just accustomed to the smile-and-nod coffee klatch style of discussion. Like Paige I also knew/know several women who were book-smart in left-brain fields, but lacked the ability to think on their feet or handle a real-time intellectual debate. Not all women I know by any means, I knew a good number of women who did just fine in that.

    It’s a big paradox and totally reversed in the male space – if you don’t disagree with something, you’ll never get any more than cursory respect, because powerful men don’t respect yes-men, they see them as useful betas (in the sense of “useful idiots”). Even the most autocratic bosses want somebody on their staff to be able to stand up to them and tell them they are wrong – it’s a high-stakes shit test.]

  15. collegeslacker


    That could be, but I don’t think it’s likely. Without being too specific about my major, it is one that requires a lot of thinking and openness to new ideas and debate. Most of the girls in my classes make me want to give myself one big facepalm every ten minutes when the class turns to debating- they read the material, but only accept what “they took from it” and tend to disagree or try to reframe any competing ideas.

    I think Badger is onto something about our junk culture. Could it be that our mindless culture further reinforces the left brain’s tendencies to reframe or deny everything that is contradictory to our accepted “self”?

  16. Paige

    women are not strong enough to compete for resources so we have to conform to the needs of others to make ourselves useful. i imagine this requires a bit of blind faith in our beliefs about ourselves and others.

  17. I have a friend similar to the guy in the bottom example. He asks for woman advice 24/7 and when I try to hit him with some good game, he always vetoes it and opts for some lame attempt. As a matter of fact, a text he sent me today said he e-mailed this girl he’s been going through some turbulent situations with (they aren’t officially “together” though) asking if she loved him. He didn’t get a response so he e-mailed back chewing her out for not responding. Come on guy… Sometimes I wonder if he ever listens to me, ha.

    [You and I both know he doesn’t. He wants better results but change is too threatening. He’s destined to be chumpadelic until he decides his pretty lies are garbage and life is worth more than self-deceptive misery. Not everyone can handle the red pill. We could pray for him but I believe God helps those who help themselves.]

  18. Aldonza

    I have a very hard time finding women who are willing to rationally debate. They seem to take any disagreement VERY personal.

    Hey, I resent that!

    [My cup runneth over.]

  19. Makes me remember something I read a while ago:

    When people is hypnotized to do things based on keywords, if you trigger the behavior by using the keyword and then ask them why did they perform the action, they also have perfect rational stories to back up their doing.

    They jumped like a frog “to stretch their backs”, barked like a dog “to check the echo in the room”, walked frenetically around the room “because they lost a coin somewhere” etc.

    The brain has a constant storytelling going on, fitting the pieces in a whole picture, etc. And yes thats the story that women are constantly telling each other, with all the nuances and oh my gods!. And this storytelling has little to do with reality and is more about interpretation.

  20. Pingback: It’s easy to be a critic. Who can create? Create your good girl. « Random Xpat Rantings

  21. There is no “real you.” “You” are just a series of connections. You can be everything, so why care if a woman is interacting with the “real you?” You’re everything or anything you want to be whenever you want to be it.

    [Your avatar reminds me of the phrase “on the Internet nobody knows you’re a dog.”]

  22. Pingback: Stop Denying the Alpha-Beta Paradigm | The Badger Hut

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