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Hanlon’s Razor – How to Stop Assuming Negative Intentions

Hanlon’s Razor – How to Stop Assuming Negative Intentions

Hanlon’s Razor is based on the definition, “Never attribute to malice that which can be adequately explained by stupidity.” It means that what is assumed to be negative intentions is usually due to negligence or incompetence.

Sometimes we assume negative intentions for now reason. Have you assumed bad intentions after an event that went wrong when the actual reason was stupidity or negligence or an error?

I have.

This article will cover:

  • What is Hanlon’s razor with examples
  • How to avoid negative intentions without being naive
Hanlon's razor

Let me tell you my story.

A group of us had started a business venture. This business model did not require our presence full time. We would catch up once in a week to measure progress, exchange ideas and discuss future plans.

One of the partners rarely showed up on some of our initial calls. I had many assumptions:

  • He skips them on purpose
  • He does not align with the ideas the others have
  • He isn’t interested in making the business successful

Many such thoughts ran wild in my head. Do you know what the actual reason was?

His calendar had an issue due to which he failed to receive notifications.

I assumed bad intentions when a simple reason caused the misses.

Hanlon’s Razor suggests you prevent such negative thoughts when there is a higher possibility of a simpler explanation.

What is Hanlon’s razor?

The actual definition of Hanlon’s Razor is “Never attribute to malice that which can be adequately explained by stupidity.”

Before we get to the details of Hanlon’s razor, the word “razor” can seem surprising. A philosophical razor is a principle that helps avoid or shave off any negative thoughts, actions, or unlikely reasons for an event.

The shave off part led to the term razor. There are many others such as – Occam’s Razor, Hume’s Razor, Grice’s Razor, and so on.

In simpler words, the principle suggests avoiding assuming wrong intentions when stupidity, negligence, incompetence or errors could explain the cause. The chances of the event occurring due to wrong intentions are far lesser than you assume.

The principle derives its roots from Occams Razor.

The principle is named after Robert J. Hanlon who wrote related to the Murphys Law in the 1980s. Though his book covered this topic, the principle has citations that go back to the 18th century.

In the words on Napolean, “Never ascribe to malice that which is adequately explained by stupidity.” I am not sure if he said those words for real or someone made them up.

Let’s keep aside the origins of this principle and talk about why this happens.

Why we assume bad intentions

Let us take an example of a coworker missing an email. Here is a visual which explains how thoughts form in your head.

thought process bad event

You assume all kinds of possible negative reasons like:

  • He ignored the email
  • He did not reply on purpose
  • He does give me the information to hinder my growth
  • He is seeking revenge because of what I said in the last meeting
  • He does not like me

The more likely reasons:

  • He missed the email
  • The email went into spam
  • He went on leave and forgot to put an out of office notice

When you face a situation where things went wrong or against your liking, you can categorize the reasons as follows:

  • Simple errors
  • Negligence/Forgetfulness
  • Incompetence/Stupidity
  • Dramatic events
  • Bad Intentions

The reasons such as negligence, error or stupidity do not occur to you first. Even if they do, you dismiss them as too obvious or boring.

You tend to give more weightage to recent events or dramatic causes. The disturbing thoughts provide a reason for overthinking and run around in your head.

Where can you apply Hanlon’s Razor – Examples of assuming wrong intentions

Personal Relationships

When the woman leaves a finished cup of coffee in the cup holder of the car, the man turns furious. When the man leaves used clothes on the bed, the woman turns enraged.

“I have told this so many times before. Do I need to repeat again?” they both crib.

The simple reason is, the man forgets to keep the clothes on the hanger and the woman steps out of the car without thinking about the cup. Both of these occurred due to forgetfulness.

Unfortunately, the natural tendency is to assume that your partner does not care about your words. A simpler explanation is he/she is forgetful than insensitive.

Related article: The importance of empathy in relationships

Work relationships

Many cases occur at work similar to the coworker failing to reply to an email example above.

Your boss might promote a different person, a co-worker might contradict your idea, an employee might show up late to work, a colleague might not invite you to a meeting and so on.

The reasons turn out simpler than you assume:

  • Your manager promoted a different person because he has achieved results outside your knowledge
  • A co-worker contradicted your idea because he believed it won’t work
  • An employee showed up late because he missed his cab
  • Your colleague forgot to invite you to a meeting

Related article: How to be successful at work

Friendship turmoils

A good friend of yours moves to a different city. You both had a habit of speaking often but all of a sudden the calls disappear.

You try calling but hear no response. Your mind starts assuming things:

  • She is ignoring me on purpose
  • She never considered me a friend in the first place
  • She wants to keep distance because I danced with her boyfriend on her farewell party

Maybe the new city and her job have kept her busy to the point of exhaustion. She might have forgotten to call the first day and wants to wait for the weekend to talk to you in detail.

Similar assumptions occur when people forget to invite you to a party or another event. You assume the person did not invite you on purpose when usually the reason is that your name slipped off the list.

Corona Virus

The most recent example is the origin of the recent virus outbreak. The reason behind how the pandemic started has many theories.

One theory that stated that it was an experimental bio-weapon that went wrong was shared all over social media. Though the other causes are more likely, the dramatic news got coverage.

The media makes the most of tagging vivid and startling causes to events. When a plain vanilla reason explains the event, not enough eyeballs are garnered. When the cause can trigger a chain of gossip, the media such as newspapers and news channels make a profit.

Businesses making a mistake

You encounter many such scenarios in your daily life where things go wrong.

Case 1: You visit a supermarket, pay the bill, reach home and find an item missing

You assume: The supermarket cheats on purpose to maximize profits

Case 2: You go to a car wash and find one of your floor mats missing

You assume: The store picks random mats and sells them in bulk

Case 3: You visit a casino, win some money and lose more than you won

You assume: The casino is rigged to make you gain money first so that you lose more.

In the first two cases, the more likely causes are human error where someone missed an item or misplaced the mat.

For the last example, the casino operates on mathematical odds. The chances favor the casino overall because that is its business model. If the casino had odds in the user’s favor, they would shut down within days.

Important pointers about the Hanlon’s razor

1. The rule is not always true

Just because the event can be explained by a simpler cause does not mean that it is always the reason. The principle works on probabilities which say that a simpler explanation is more likely.

2. The rule goes wrong sometimes

A few decades back, people did not believe in the existence of mafia. If you applied this principle then, you would consider yourself making a negative assumption. But mafia turned out real.

Likewise, many assumptions that started as conspiracies turned out true.

3. The rule isn’t asking you to be naive

In some cases, bad intentions could very well be the reason. Hanlon’s razor isn’t asking you to be naive. Rather it recommends finding other possible explanations first before fixating on bad intentions.

You must use your best sense of judgment to decide which reasons explain the event.

Related article: How to use the OODA Loop to make better decisions

4. Consider the costs of assuming and not assuming malice

When you find your mind assuming bad intentions consider both sides of the coin. Ask yourself:

  • What if I assume bad intentions and my assumption is wrong?
  • What if I assume good intentions and the reason was malice?

Evaluate the cost of your assumption and proceed accordingly.

Cost of the wrong assumption being too high:

For example, if you notice your company accounts showing repeated losses, you must validate the most likely causes first. You cannot reject possible cases of employee fraud assuming good intentions. The cost of the wrong assumption is too high to ignore.

Cost of the wrong assumption is negligible:

If you take the example where you missed an item from the supermarket, your incorrect assumption has a low cost. If all you missed was a bar of soap, the cost isn’t much even if you presume good intent. When you visit the place the next time, you can make a better judgment.

Benefits of good assumptions

Not assuming malicious intent has more advantages than disadvantages.

1. You build better relationships

Many relationships deteriorate due to wrong assumptions. One person starts with an incorrect assumption, passes out a vibe and the other person responds. People assume some wrongdoing when actually no one is at fault.

Instead, if you presume good intent, you run into lesser confusion and conflicts.

2. Allows more logical thoughts

Knowing Hanlon’s razor prompts you to consider all possible causes before jumping to a conclusion. You can think with an open mind and apply rational reasons to the event instead of breaking your head with some highly unlikely cause.

3. Prevents overthinking

When you encounter an event you dislike, you tend to overthink about the possible causes. All the dramatic reasons compel you to go deeper and deeper into a spiral of negative thoughts.

Such overthinking not only damages relationships but also spoils your mood. Even if you try to shoo the thought off your head, your mind itches again and again.

By applying the principle, you feel relieved knowing that the reasons are possibly simpler. You can breathe a sigh of relief and stop snowballing all the negative reasons in your head.

Related article: How to stop overthinking and relax

How to apply Hanlon’s razor effectively

1. When the cause seems dramatic, ask yourself is there a simpler explanation.

When you find yourself making bad assumptions about people without concrete proof, ask yourself:

  • What are the chances of a simpler reason?
  • Is my assumption based on facts/data or my imagination?

You do not have to do such an analysis for every little event. But whenever you face a thought which can sabotage relationships, check if the Hanlon’s razor can find a simpler cause.

2. Check for repeated instances instead of only the first instance

Your mind can induce negative thoughts right from the first mistake. When a supermarket misses one of the items you purchased, the cause is usually a human error.

If it is your first experience, the odds suggest an error rather than malicious intent, even if you have never visited the store before. If the same occurs the next time you purchase anything from the same store, you validate your doubts.

Think for a moment. If they did it often, someone or the other would have called it out by now.

Consider excusing the first offense instead of going all guns blazing within your head.


Your mind never remains idle, even when you’re sleeping. Nature has wired your DNA to think all the time. As a result, your brain makes up ideas many a time. When things seem too obvious, your mind wants to spice things up just to add more food for thought.

Many have questioned the theory of Hanlon’s Razor. In some cases, it has gone wrong too. Critics reject the Hanlon’s Razor because they believe it makes people naive.

The principle does not eliminate bad intentions altogether. It just says that people are nicer than you think. Often, the negativity is the demon inside your head than the actions of people.

Do not apply Hanlon’s Razor by ignoring evidence, facts, and data. Sometimes what you consider as stupidity, incompetence or errors is the intentional wrongdoing of someone. Use your best judgment on when to apply the principle and went to look someone in the eye and see right through their soul.

Will you always make the right assumptions by applying the Hanlon’s Razor? Nope. You will goof up sooner or later assuming good intentions when the cause was malice.

But overall, you will bring in more positivity and peace of mind in your life.

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