Rationalisation and Intellectualisation

Michael Balls

Russell and Burch saw failure to accept the correlation
between humanity and efficacy as an example of
rationalisation, a psychological defence mechanism

While wondering what I could discuss in this column I looked, as I often do, in the abridged version1 of The Principles of Humane Experimental Technique,2 at Russell and Burch’s introduction of what I call the humanity criterion. It is part of their discussion of the sociological factors which are among the Factors Governing Progress. This is how part of page 101 of the abridged version reads:
In fact, really informative experiments must be as humane as would be conceivable possible, for science and exploration are indissolubly linked to the social activity of cooperation, which will find its expression in relation to other animals, no less than to our fellow humans. Conscious good will and the social operational method are useless as safeguards against the mechanism of rationalisation (in the pathological sense of the term — i.e. the mechanism of defence by which unacceptable thoughts or actions are given acceptable reasons to justify them to oneself and to others, while, at the same tie, unwittingly hiding the true, but unconscious, motives for them).

The bold type indicates my explanation, and I have to admit that, six years after preparing the abridged version of The Principles, I now found it difficult to see what Russell and Burch had intended to convey. I therefore looked back at the original book, and found this paragraph on pages 156−157:
In efficacy, or yield of information, the advantages of humane technique apply almost universally. The correlation between humanity and efficacy has appeared so often in this book that we need not labour the point. There is, however, a more fundamental aspect of this correlation, specially important in research. Science means the operational method — telling somebody else how to see what you saw. This method is one of the greatest of all human evolutionary innovations. It has, however, one drawback. It prevents permanent acceptance of false information, but it does not prevent wastage of time and effort. The activity of science is the supreme expression of the human exploratory drive, and as such it is the subject to the same pathology. The scientist is liable, like all other individuals, to block his exploration on some front where his reactions to childhood social experiences are impinged upon. When this happens to the experimental biologist, we can predict the consequence with certainty. Instead of really exploring, he will, in his experiments, act out on his animals, in a more or less symbolic and exaggerated way, some kind of treatment which he once experienced in social intercourse with his parents. He can rationalise this as exploration, and hence fail to notice the block. But in fact such acting out invariably occurs precisely when real exploration is blocked, and must be relinquished before real exploration can begin again. Hence, such experiments will be utterly wasteful, misleading, and uninformative. The treatment of the animals, for one thing, will inevitably be such as to impair their use as satisfactory models. The interpretation of the results will be vitiated by projection. Really  informative experiments, must in fact be as humane as would be conceivably possible, for science and exploration are indissolubly linked to the social activity of cooperation, which will find its expression in relation to other animals no less than to our fellow humans. Conscious goodwill and the social operational method are useless as safeguards against the mechanism of rationalisation (in the pathological sense of the term).

Here, the underlining indicates what I omitted from the abridged version, and I now wonder why I did so. These words clearly reflect Russell’s interest in psychology — he later became a psychotherapist, and undoubtedly will have been influenced by discussions with his psychotherapist wife, Claire Russell. They could be seen as an explanation why some scientists did not appreciate the essential link between humanity and efficacy, and why Russell thought they needed what was offered by the Three Rs and the humanity criterion.

It is not clear what is meant by “the social operational method”, and consulting Google leads to only one hit — The Principles itself! “Conscious goodwill” is probably meant to contrast with unconscious rationalisation. Perhaps what Russell meant is that, however sincere the intention may appear to be, support for the Three Rs is useless, unless it leads to active and practical commitment to their development and application.

We are often confronted with rationalisation, the pseudo-rational justification of irrational acts,3 and its relative, intellectualisation, a different defence mechanism (or way of making excuses), “where reasoning is used to block confrontation with an unconscious conflict and its associated emotional stress, where thinking is used to avoid feeling. It involves removing one’s self, emotionally, from a stressful event. Intellectualisation is one of Freud’s original defence mechanisms. Freud believed that memories have both conscious and unconscious aspects, and that intellectualisation allows for the conscious analysis of an event in a way that does not provoke anxiety.”4

I am not a psychoanalyst, and I think it would be unwise, even dangerous, were I to seek to delve into the underlying reasons why some scientists are so keen to run to animal experimentation as the first resort and to do so little to make possible its replacement. Nevertheless, I can say, without fear of contradiction, that this is another great example of how Russell and Burch’s wonderful book continues to give us food for thought and calls for action.

Professor Michael Balls
E-mail: michael.balls@btopenworld.com

1 Balls, M. (2009). The Three Rs and the Humanity Criterion, 131pp. Nottingham, UK:  FRAME.
2 Russell, W.M.S. & Burch, R.L. (1959). The Principles of Humane Experimental Technique, xiv + 238pp. London, UK: Methuen.
3 Anon. (2015). Rationalization (psychology). San Francisco, CA, USA: Wikipedia Foundation, Inc. Available at: https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Rationalization_(psychology) (Accessed 26.08.15).
4 Anon. (2015). Intellectualization. San Francisco, CA, USA: Wikipedia Foundation, Inc. Available at: https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Intellectualization
(Accessed 26.08.15).
The Principles of Humane Experimental Technique is now out of print, but the full text can be found at http://altweb.jhsph.edu/pubs/books/humane_exp/het-toc. The abridged version, The Three Rs and the Humanity Criterion, can be obtained from

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