Hanlon’s Razor: Why You Shouldn’t Start By Assuming the Worst

Hanlons Razor

 

Hanlon’s razor is the adage that you should “never attribute to malice that which is adequately explained by stupidity”. This suggests that when assessing people’s actions, you should not assume that they acted out of a desire to cause harm, as long as there is a reasonable alternative explanation.

For example, if you don’t receive a notice about an important event in your company, Hanlon’s razor means that you shouldn’t assume that this happened because the person in charge decided to avoid sending it to you since they dislike you, if it’s reasonable to assume that they simply forgot to send it.

Hanlon’s razor can be a beneficial principle to implement, in a variety of contexts. As such, in the following article you will learn more about Hanlon’s razor, and see how you can use it yourself as effectively as possible.

 

Understanding Hanlon’s razor

Hanlon’s razor is a philosophical razor, which means that it’s a guiding principle that helps you select the most likely—though not necessarily correct—explanation for a phenomenon. It is therefore a valuable reasoning tool, which can help you deal with various everyday issues, such as having someone miss an appointment with you or not respond to an email.

However, there are two important caveats that must be mentioned with regard to Hanlon’s razor:

  • Hanlon’s razor doesn’t imply that actions never occur due to malice. Rather, it suggests that, as long as it’s reasonable to do so, it’s better to assume that negative outcomes occurred as a result of stupidity or similar causes, rather than malice.
  • Hanlon’s razor doesn’t have to do with whether a certain action was justified or not. That is, the use of Hanlon’s razor doesn’t imply that a certain action is acceptable just because it happened as a result of stupidity instead of malice. Rather, Hanlon’s razor is simply used in order to help you find the most likely explanation for an action, after which you can decide how to judge that action and how to respond accordingly.

Overall, this means that Hanlon’s razor is meant to serve as a rule of thumb for understanding people’s actions in some cases. This means that it’s not guaranteed to lead you to the right conclusion, but that it can nevertheless be a good starting point in many situations.

Note: Hanlon’s razor is sometimes described in formulations that are similar to the original, such as “never attribute to malice that which is adequately explained by carelessness”.

 

The benefits of Hanlon’s razor

There are two main benefits to using Hanlon’s razor:

  • Hanlon’s razor can help you find the right explanation for people’s actions. This is because, in many cases, we tend to assume that people acted out of malice, even though alternative explanations are much more likely, and Hanlon’s razor can help us keep this in mind.
  • Hanlon’s razor can help you avoid the negative emotions associated with assuming bad intentions. In many cases, assuming that someone acted out of malice will cause you to experience more negative emotions, such as anger or stress, compared to assuming that they acted due to other reasons. Therefore, unless there is a good reason to assume that someone acted out of malice, it is often better to avoid assuming malice without a good reason.

In addition, there are several other benefits to using Hanlon’s razor, and especially to using the expanded version of Hanlon’s razor, which suggests that you should not assume bad intentions when reasonable alternative explanations are available, beyond the ‘stupidity’ explanation.

First, Hanlon’s razor can help you assess situations more quickly and easily. Specifically, if you use this principle as a mental shortcut in situations where it’s reasonable to do so, it can save you from having to dedicate more time, effort, and other resources to assessing the situation.

Second, using Hanlon’s razor can be seen as doing the right thing from a moral perspective. Specifically, giving people the benefit of the doubt, and not starting by assuming that they acted out of malice, is often seen as being morally right. This way of acting relates to several important moral principles, such as the principle of charity, which denotes that you should assume the best possible interpretation of people’s statements, and the golden rule, which denotes that you should treat others the same way you would like to be treated yourself.

Third, using Hanlon’s razor can facilitate your relationships with others. Specifically, giving people the benefit of the doubt can help you communicate with them better, and can improve your relationships with them, both in the short-term and in the long-term. This is especially important when it comes to avoiding situations where you wrongly accuse others of acting out of malice, which can be detrimental to your relationship with them.

Finally, Hanlon’s razor can prompt you to take action that you otherwise wouldn’t. For example, consider a situation where someone is doing something that bothers you, such as a situation where your neighbor is making a lot of noise. Instinctively, you might start out by assuming that they are aware that what they’re doing is bothering you, and that they just don’t care, which can lead you to not bother asking them to stop. However, by implementing Hanlon’s razor, you might realize that they’re acting a certain way not because they don’t care about bothering you, but because they’re simply unaware that what they’re doing is an issue. This realization can prompt you to take action, such as asking them to stop, which you wouldn’t take otherwise.

Overall, Hanlon’s razor offers various benefits, including helping you find the right explanation for people’s actions, helping you avoid the negative emotions associated with assuming bad intentions, improving your relationships with others, and prompting you to take action.

 

How to implement Hanlon’s razor

So far, we saw what Hanlon’s razor is, and how you can benefit from using it. Fortunately, implementing Hanlon’s razor is generally simple and easy, which is another thing that makes it such a useful principle.

Essentially, you can implement Hanlon’s razor any time you’re trying to understand why someone undertook an action that you might attribute to bad intentions. To do so, you should ask yourself if there is a reasonable alternative explanation for that person’s behavior. If there is, you should generally assume that this alternative explanation is the right one, unless you have a compelling reason to assume that the person in question acted with bad intentions.

In addition, there are a few other things that you can do to make your use of Hanlon’s razor more effective. These are covered in the next few sections.

 

Expand Hanlon’s razor

The original version of Hanlon’s razor is formulated as follows:

“Never attribute to malice that which is adequately explained by stupidity”

However, while this version is useful by itself, it can be beneficial to expand it. There are two main ways to do this.

First, you can account for the fact that people act for other problematic reasoning beyond malice and stupidity, as in the following formulation:

“Never attribute to bad intentions, such as malice and self-interest, that which is adequately explained by other causes, such as stupidity, ignorance, carelessness, or incompetence.”

For example, if someone who is clearly smart acts in a problematic manner, this expanded version of Hanlon’s razor can help you realize that they might have acted the way that they did because they simply don’t care about the situation. In this case, the expanded version of Hanlon’s is beneficial, because the person in question is smart, so the original formulation of Hanlon’s razor will not apply in this situation, even though they did not act out of malice.

In addition, you can further expand Hanlon’s razor, and generalize it into the following formulation:

“Never attribute to negative causes that which is adequately explained by other causes.”

This formulation involves two important modifications from the original:

  • “Malice” is replaced by “negative causes”.
  • “Stupidity” is replaced by “other causes”.

The advantage of this modification is that, if you focus only on malice and stupidity, or other limited types of negative causes, then the applications of Hanlon’s razor end up being fairly limited, since people often do things that have negative outcomes for others, even if they are not driven by malice, stupidity, or similar causes.

For example, if you’ve applied to a job and haven’t heard back after a few days, you might assume that it’s because the person in charge of the job thinks that you’re not good enough.

Here, the original formulation of Hanlon’s razor isn’t generally applicable, since neither malice nor stupidity will be the reasons why you haven’t heard back. However, by expanding Hanlon’s razor to account for negative causes other than malice and for alternative causes other than stupidity, you can avoid assuming that the reason why you haven’t heard back is that you’re not good enough, and instead consider that the person in charge may simply still be processing applications.

Similarly, you can benefit from expanding Hanlon’s razor in a situation where someone doesn’t quickly reply to an email that you’ve sent them after a few days. Specifically, in such a situation, if malice and stupidity aren’t likely causes of their behavior, expanding Hanlon’s razor can help you realize that there are various valid reasons for this delay, such as that they’re extremely busy at the moment, or that they’re trying to find the relevant information that you’ve asked for.

Overall, you can benefit from expanding Hanlon’s razor, to account for causes beyond malice and stupidity.  This includes negative causes, such as carelessness and selfishness, neutral causes, such as lack of experience and being overwhelmed with work, and even positive causes, such as that someone is taking the time to do a good job.

Note: another formulation of the more general version of Hanlon’s razor is “don’t assume bad intentions when there may be another explanation”.

 

Learn to assess people’s intentions

When it comes to assessing people’s intentions better, there are several concepts worth keeping in mind.

Most notably, there is the egocentric bias, which is the tendency to rely on our own perspective when we interpret other people’s actions. The egocentric bias means, for example, that if you care a lot about something, it can be difficult for you to remember that others might not care about it as much. To overcome this bias, which will improve your ability to assess people’s intentions when using Hanlon’s razor, you can use various debiasing techniques, such as visualizing the situation from the other person’s perspective.

In addition to the egocentric bias, there are several other cognitive biases worth learning about in the context of Hanlon’s razor:

  • The curse of knowledge. The curse of knowledge is a cognitive bias that causes people to fail to account for the fact that others don’t know the same things that they do. Essentially, this means that people who are more knowledgeable than others in some domain often struggle to take this difference in knowledge into account.
  • The empathy gap. The empathy gap is a cognitive bias that makes it difficult for people to account for the manner in which differences in mental states affect the way that they and other people make decisions. For example, this means that if someone is currently angry, it’s going to be difficult for them to assess the mindset of someone who acted while they were calm.
  • The fundamental attribution error. The fundamental attribution error is a cognitive bias that causes people to underestimate the influence of environment-based situational factors on people’s behavior, and to overestimate the influence of personality-based dispositional factors. For example, the fundamental attribution error can cause someone to assume that if some stranger looks angry, then they must be an angry person in general, even though this person might have been driven to temporary anger by something, such as someone else being rude to them.

Like the egocentric bias, these biases can also be reduced in some cases using relevant debiasing techniques. Such techniques include both general debiasing techniques, such as slowing down your reasoning process, as well as more specialized techniques, such as visualizing the situation from someone else’s perspective.

 

Understand the limitations of Hanlon’s razor

Though Hanlon’s razor is a useful guiding principle, it should only be viewed as a rule of thumb, that isn’t guaranteed to help you correctly identify people’s motives, since there are certainly cases where people act out of malice or other bad intentions. As such, when deciding whether and how to implement Hanlon’s razor, you should consider the following factors:

  • How likely it is that an action occurred due to reasons other than malice (or other bad intentions). The more likely it is that whatever happened did not occur due to malice, the more predisposed you should be to giving the other person the benefit of the doubt. When trying to assess this likelihood, you can take into account the other person’s past actions, as well as their general personality, their abilities, and what they stand to gain from acting maliciously.
  • What are the costs associated with incorrectly assuming malice (or other bad intentions). The more costly it will be for you to incorrectly assume that a person acted out of malice, in a situation where they didn’t, the more predisposed you should be to assuming that whatever happened had happened due to other reasons.
  • What are the costs associated with incorrectly assuming non-malicious intentions. The more costly it will be for you to incorrectly assume that someone acted for non-malicious intentions, in a situation where they did act out of malice, the more cautious you should be when implementing Hanlon’s razor.

Accordingly, there are situations where you might choose not to assume non-malicious intentions, because the likelihood of the other person acting maliciously is so high, or because there is a high cost to incorrectly assuming that their actions did not occur due to malice.

In such cases, it can be beneficial to start off by assuming malice, or other bad intentions, and to then only accept an alternative explanation if you have sufficient evidence. Such situations can be described using the concept of “guilty until proven innocent”, which is the opposite of the concept proposed by Hanlon’s razor, which can be described as “innocent until proven guilty”.

Finally, note that in some cases, it can be beneficial to use a hybrid approach. This can involve, for example, assuming a non-malicious explanation for people’s actions, while at the same time preparing to act if the malicious explanation turns out to be true (i.e. “assume the best but prepare for the worst”).

 

The history of Hanlon’s razor

Hanlon’s razor, in its current name and formulation, is attributed to Robert J. Hanlon, who submitted it as an entry to “Murphy’s Law, Book Two: more reasons why things go wrong”, a 1980 book by Arthur Bloch.

However, the underlying principle behind Hanlon’s razor has been mention in various formulations throughout history.

For example, an early version of this adage appears in the 1774 novel “The Sorrows of Young Werther”, where Goethe wrote:

“Misunderstandings and neglect occasion more mischief in the world than even malice and wickedness. At all events, the two latter are of less frequent occurrence.”

Similarly, in an 1898 book titled “The Royal Academy: Its Uses and Abuses”, author William James Laidlay wrote:

“It is the game of life we are playing; and if men, by their professions, lead other men into disaster, I maintain it is a serious thing. Some men, in fact, I think, most men, do it with no malice at all; in fact, far from it, it is more like stupidity; still, the result is the same.”

In addition, author Robert A. Heinlein also mentioned this concept in his 1941 story “Logic of Empire”, published in his “The Past Through Tomorrow” collection, where one character tells another:

“You have attributed conditions to villainy that simply result from stupidity.” (The character saying this describes this concept as “the commonest fallacy of all in dealing with social and economic subjects—the ‘devil theory'”)

Furthermore, a similar notion was described by Bernard Ingham, who served as Margaret Thatcher’s chief press secretary while she was Prime Minister of the UK, and who is reported to have said that:

“Many journalists have fallen for the conspiracy theory of government. I do assure you that they would produce more accurate work if they adhered to the cock-up theory.”

— As reported in “Conspiracy Theories: The Philosophical Debate” by David Coady in 2006, where it is attributed to a 1985 quote in the “Otago Daily Times”

Moreover, beyond the different formulations of Hanlon’s razor itself, various related principles have been formulated throughout history.

For example, in the novel “Time Enough for Love” by Robert A. Heinlein, an important principle is mentioned, which should be considered when taking Hanlon’s razor into account:

“Never underestimate the power of human stupidity.”

Similarly, another relevant principle that is commonly mentioned in conjunction with Hanlon’s razor is Grey’s law, which has an unclear source, and which states that:

“Any sufficiently advanced incompetence is indistinguishable from malice.”

In addition, a corollary of Hanlon’s razor was proposed by journalist Ramesh Ponnuru, who, when discussing the actions of politicians, said:

“Never attribute to strategy what can be explained by emotion.”

Finally, author Douglas Hubbard wrote a corollary to Hanlon’s razor, which states that:

“Never attribute to malice or stupidity that which can be explained by moderately rational individuals following incentives in a complex system of interactions.”

— From “The Failure of Risk Management: Why It’s Broken and How to Fix It

In saying this, Hubbard’s goal was to emphasize the fact that:

“People behaving with no central coordination and acting in their own best interest can still create results that appear to some to be clear proof of conspiracy or a plague of ignorance.”

Note: other principles that are sometimes mentioned in relation to Hanlon’s razor are Murphy’s law, which is the adage that “anything that can go wrong will go wrong”, and Finagle’s law, which is the adage that “anything that can go wrong, will—at the worst possible moment”. In addition, a relevant humorous adage is ” never ascribe to an opponent motives meaner than your own”.

 

Summary and conclusions

  • Hanlon’s razor is the adage that you should “never attribute to malice that which is adequately explained by stupidity”.
  • Hanlon’s razor offers various benefits, including helping you find the right explanation for people’s actions, helping you avoid the negative emotions associated with assuming bad intentions, improving your relationships with others, and prompting you to take action.
  • You can expand Hanlon’s razor, to account for causes beyond malice and stupidity, including negative causes, such as carelessness, neutral causes, such as lack of experience, and even positive causes, such as that someone is taking the time to do a good job.
  • To implement Hanlon’s razor effectively, it helps to learn how to assess people’s intentions better, by understanding how to avoid patterns of thinking such as the egocentric bias, which is the tendency to rely on our own perspective when interpreting other people’s actions.
  • When deciding whether and how to implement Hanlon’s razor, you should consider the likelihood that the other person acted maliciously, as well as the cost of incorrectly assuming malice, or incorrectly assuming non-malicious intent.