I have blogged before about the phenomenon of cognitive resonance. This is when we explain something we have done so that it makes rational sense, even when the real reason might not have been all that rational. This is not a conscious thing (well, at least it doesn’t have to be). It is just a natural way our brain works.
This makes sense from a long term adaptability perspective because we often make decisions or behave in ways that are based on emotion, instant gratification, and other suboptimal reasons but it is better not to think of ourselves as irrational. For our brains to naturally do this and not even let our ego know about it works pretty well.
The most famous (at least among us behavioral science geeks) example is a study where people were asked to do a really boring task, either for free or for $20. Then they asked them about the experience. Which ones do you think thought it was most boring? Their hypothesis was that the $20 people would because of the reward. But the opposite happened. The $20 people knew that they did it just for the money so it was OK for it to be boring. But the people who got nothing had no justification. So their unconscious cognitive resonance retroactively convinced them that the task was not so boring, allowing them to feel better about having done it.
As a behavioral engineer, my job is to figure out how to use research results like this to design better systems, jobs, consumer products, or whatever. And as usual, a comic strip says it better than I ever could.