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False Necessities: How We Rationalize Our Choices

We tell ourselves we "need" to do certain things. Is that true?

Key points

  • Commonly, we justify our choices as things we "need" to do.
  • Both individuals and groups have basic needs, but there are many ways of addressing these.
  • Presented here are criteria to evaluate whether our decisions feature “reasons” or “rationalizations.”
Ground Picture/Shutterstock
Source: Ground Picture/Shutterstock

My friends and I frequently joke that a lot of the issues we deal with are “first-world” problems. That is, choosing paint colors for the living room, fixing the car’s dented fender, and finding an affordable vacation spot are very small concerns when one considers the challenges most people in the world face every day.

Despite that flicker of moral insight, we quickly return to the problem at hand. Somehow, we must find a way to get Junior into that school he (read, we) wants to go to. Because life is short and precious, those kitchen countertops need to go. So does that tiny (32”) television. Neither of us is getting any younger. We should buy that RV now.

Part of the charm of humans is that we can commit ourselves to these discretionary ventures just as we address more fundamental ones. Telling ourselves—and our significant others—that we simply “must” do something is mostly a way of shouting down our own uncertainties and perhaps, their opposing views.

This rhetorical bombast doesn’t keep us from sleepless nights. Some portion of that tossing and turning focuses on the goal at hand: whether to make changes to our house or move to another; go back to school; quit the current job and look for a better one, and so forth. Much more restlessness, I believe, is devoted to the technicalities of the change. What are the potential difficulties? Can we really pull this off? What will our friends and family think?

This post, then, is about what it means to “need” something and how to discern when our decision-making about this issue becomes faulty. When do our “reasons” become “rationalizations”?

Individual Needs

There are many lists of basic human needs in psychology and the self-help professions. All stress that individuals require certain kinds of resources and activities to live and function well. The authors emphasize that mere survival is not enough. Humans should also thrive, that is, expand their interests and commitments in ways that enrich the self.

Abraham Maslow presented in 1943 what is still the best-known model of individual needs. His initial formulation has five basic needs arranged as a pyramid. Most fundamental, and thus at the pyramid’s base, are physiological needs (air, food and water, shelter, sleep, and the like). Just above that are safety needs (protections that give security, predictability, and control to life). Higher yet is the need for love and belonging, the drive to be part of relationships and groups.

Support and belonging, though, are not enough. Maslow’s fourth level is esteem, the quest for recognition and respect, both from oneself and others. Fifth, and finally, is the stage of self-actualization, essentially, the commitment to personal growth and fulfillment of potential. Ideally, all of us should find ways to express ourselves creatively and otherwise make contributions to the world.

In 1971, Maslow added three levels to his pyramid. Newly positioned between esteem and self-actualization are cognitive needs (commitments to knowledge and understanding) and aesthetic needs (appreciation of beauty and form). And the eighth, and top, level becomes transcendence (relationship-building with nature, culture, and the human community).

Maslow’s general point is that “needs” are of different types and levels of urgency. After we meet our most basic survival requirements, we go about “feathering our nests.” But self-centered decoration is not the endpoint for the worthiest, or most fulfilling, lives. Ultimately, actualization means connection to the world around us.

I should note that some psychologists consider this model of “needs” to be too broad. In that sense, they distinguish between needs, wants, urges, and desires. We may feel the urge to have sex, but is it really a need? We require shelter from the cold, but does that mean adding a new primary suite onto the house? Such is the theme of this post.

Social Needs

One of the biases of psychology is its emphasis on the personal causes and consequences of behavior. To be sure, most choices we make are filtered through our perceptions of the issues at hand. However, many times, we do things for the sake of others.

Few of us are so self-centered as to disregard the needs of our loved ones. Likewise, we listen to our friends and do what we can to help them. Most of us also acknowledge that the wider community, even society itself, has needs. In that spirit, we observe traffic laws, pay taxes, and refrain from dumping trash wherever we like. The best and wisest of us, as Maslow describes, commit at least some portion of our lives to helping those who exist beyond our immediate social circles.

All this sounds noble. However, our offers of help are commonly expressions of what we think is good for those needy people. Sometimes, our behaviors help us acquire those (fourth level) feelings of esteem Maslow identifies. Other sorts of self-interest intrude. Indeed, many of our behaviors are obligations, both interpersonal and public. If you don’t observe traffic laws, pay taxes, and refrain from dumping trash wherever you want, you’ll pay a price.

Reasons and Rationalizations

Clearly, decision-making is complicated and fed by many sources of motivation. More to the point, it seems that any decision we make can be portrayed as fulfilling some sort of need, at least according to Maslow’s expanded vision of how we should live. Maybe getting those new drapes for the living room is an expression of our aesthetic need? Vacationing on the Mexican coast will be a time for relationship-building and personal growth.

Dependably ingenious, we humans justify most things. What are some issues that might help us frame our decision-making more clearly?

  • Timing of the reasoning process. Rationalizations are usually explanations given during or after a decision. We’ve decided to do something in a relatively unexamined way; now we justify it. Reasons, by contrast, involve protracted thinking about the matter at hand.
  • Confusion of means and ends. Typically, one thinks of means following ends. That is, we identify a goal and figure out a strategy to attain it. Frequently, however, the reverse occurs: the doing of something becomes the end. For example, we tell ourselves our family would benefit from some extended time together, but the real reason we’re traveling is that we enjoy planning and experiencing vacations. Reasonable people try to be clear about motives.
  • Considering alternatives. Most of us get ideas in our heads and then announce the results—for example, “Who wants to go to Disney World?” Sometimes, this is a take-it-or-leave-it proposition for listeners. Disregarded here is the idea that there are many other ways of relaxing together, traveling, and spending money. Reasonable people discuss these earlier in the process.
  • Who benefits? What decision-maker hasn’t claimed to do something for the sake of their children or partner? “I do all this for them; they love it,” proclaims the stage mother, Little League dad, and beauty pageant mom. These claims seem loudest when their protégé is a first-teamer or star. Those of us who’ve been in these settings know that parents, grandparents, and other adults get as much or more from them as the kids. Many things we do are supports for our own self-image. We should be honest about that.
  • Decisions have consequences. When we decide to do something in the heat of the moment and rationalize it later, we ignore the fact that most choices have consequences. Some of these are only short-term matters: time, energy, and money spent in one way and not another. Others change the trajectory of our lives. The truly wealthy can have their vacation homes, world cruises, and expensive vehicles as they wish. The rest of us should consider what we’re doing.

The reader may feel that this post is an attempt to paralyze decision-making and rob it of its spontaneity and joy. Not at all. Most of life’s small decisions can be made in immediate, zestful ways. But the big ones—that affect other people and our own long-term possibilities—should be the products of reason rather than rationalization.


Maslow, A. (1943). A Theory of Human Motivation. Psychological Review, 50 (4): 370-396.

Maslow, A. (1971). The Farther Reaches of Human Nature. NY: Viking Press.

Vermani, M. (2022). How to Separate Your Wants from Your Needs. Psychology Today. (posted November 22, 2022).

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