What is Rationalization and why you do not want one

Most people are extremely happy to participate in research. Humans need to feel they are helpful, and want to be perceived as good people, smart, and nice. The problem with this is rationalization. When asked a question about something that happened to them, people almost always change their story and answer differently than what actually happened. They rationalize. They are completely unaware they do that.

People tend to think (often unconsciously) about what a good story or answer might be that would satisfy the person who is asking, or alternatively what answer would make them look good, smart, sophisticated, or nice. And then they give an answer or tell a story that sounds very real and believable. The even bigger problem is that you as the person who is asking the question have no idea whether the answer or story you just heard is true or false.

Here are three tricks you can apply to uncover, avoid, and overcome rationalization.

Double-check

For very critical questions, verify the answer with another question, if possible. For example, let’s assume you are interested in people’s book reading habits in a specific domain. You present to your interviewees a list of five books and ask them to tell you which ones they read cover to cover. Since people want to be both helpful and perceived as smart, good, and nice, the answer you might get from many interviewees would include at least one book, while in reality, most haven’t even read one book on the list. After asking a few more questions, you can ask a verification question that asks them what a certain term means in their opinion. If you ask about a term that was introduced and explained in one or more of the books you have previously asked if they had read, you can verify if they actually read it. This trick is not always possible and highly depends on the nature of questions you are asking, yet it is the only thing you can use to uncover rationalization. When you have identified a conflict among answers, don’t confront your interviewees about it. Just note to yourself that their answers on these specific questions are irrelevant and ignore them.

Very recent past

Ask about something that happened very recently, e.g., yesterday, last week, the last time, etc. This way, things are still fresh in the minds of your interviewees. Don’t ask people to “average” their experience, i.e., to think about their collective experiences and make them into one. For example, don’t ask what they do “typically” or what they “normally” or “usually” do. It’s easy to fall into this trap even without using these words. For example, when you ask “How do you choose a hotel?” it’s a question that asks people to average their experience. What if they chose three hotels in the past year? What your interviewees will do is tell you a story that never happened because they now pick and choose details from different times and places and craft an answer that is not helpful for you because it’s not real. They’ll also add details to make their answer present them as smart, sophisticated travelers. Avoid such questions by asking about the last time they booked a hotel. Some of your interviewees will respond that the last time was atypical or not normal. Life never is. That’s okay. Have them tell you something that happened very recently. That’s a great way to avoid rationalization. When you ask people to average their experiences, you’re inviting them to rationalize.

Specific, then broad

When you get (or ask for) a specific example in detail, once you have all the details, ask the interviewee, “Is this how you normally do it?” This way you get the best of both worlds. A specific real example and an idea if it’s an outlier compared to their normal behavior. Of course, their normal behavior may be a rationalization, but it might also reveal more than just the one atypical example. You can always probe around the “normal behavior.” How many times did you do it that way in the last six months? Why is that the way you normally do it? Why did you do it differently the most recent time?

Tomer Sharon is the author of Validating Product Ideas Through Lean User Research. Get a 20% discount when you purchase the book directly at Rosenfeld Media using the code tomernews.

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Head of User Research & Metrics at Goldman Sachs, Author of Validating Product Ideas and It's Our Research, Ex-Google, Ex-WeWork, WWE fanboy. 2∞&→