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?
This article will cover:
- What is Hanlon’s razor with examples
- How to avoid negative intentions without being naive
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?
- Why we assume bad intentions
- Where can you apply Hanlon’s Razor – Examples of assuming wrong intentions
- Friendship turmoils
- Important pointers about the Hanlon’s razor
- Benefits of good assumptions
- How to apply Hanlon’s razor effectively
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.
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
- 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
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.
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
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.
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.
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.
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.
Maxim Dsouza has spent over a decade experimenting and finding various time management techniques to improve his productivity. He strongly understands the fact that time is a limited commodity and tries to make every second count. He has extensive experience in leadership in startups, small businesses, and large corporations.
He has helped people of different professions and age groups gain clarity on their goals, improve focus, revise their time management skills and develop an awareness of their psychological cognitive biases.