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 someone does something that leads to a negative outcome, you should avoid assuming that they acted out of an intentional desire to cause harm, as long as there is a different plausible explanation for their behavior.

For example, if you don’t receive a notification about an important event that’s going on in your company, implementing Hanlon’s razor should lead you to first assume that this happened because someone messed up and forgot to send you the notification, rather than because the person in charge intentionally decided to not send it to you.

Applying this principle can be beneficial in a wide range of situations. As such, in the following article, you will learn more about Hanlon’s razor, and about how you can implement it in various areas of life.


An explanation of Hanlon’s razor

Hanlon’s razor is a philosophical razor, meaning that it’s a simple guiding principle, that helps you select the most likely explanation for a phenomenon. Specifically, Hanlon’s razor encourages you to not start out by assuming that a certain action occurred due to someone’s ill intentions, if it’s possible that it occurred due to stupidity instead.

Hanlon’s razor is a valuable tool, that can help you deal with various everyday problems, such as having someone miss an appointment with you or not respond to an email. This is because Hanlon’s razor can help you figure out why people do the negative things that they do, while also helping you avoid the unnecessary anger and stress which are associated with immediately assuming that people had bad intentions.

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

  • 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.
  • Hanlon’s razor doesn’t imply that actions never occur due to malice. Rather, it states that in general, negative outcomes are more likely to occur as a result of stupidity rather than malice, and that it’s more beneficial for you to assume that stupidity was the cause of such outcomes, at least initially.

Overall, Hanlon’s razor is meant to serve as a simple rule of thumb, that gives you a good starting point when you’re trying to figure out the cause of something bad that happened. In the following sections, you will learn how you can benefit from implementing from Hanlon’s razor, and how you can utilize it as effectively as possible.

Note: Hanlon’s razor is sometimes cited with other formulations besides the original, such as “never attribute to malice that which is adequately explained by carelessness”.


The benefits of implementing Hanlon’s razor

Using Hanlon’s razor when can be beneficial, for two main reasons:

  • Hanlon’s razor can help you find the most logical explanation for various events. This is because, in general, it’s more likely that people will do something out of a lack of awareness, than out of an intentional desire to cause harm.
  • It’s generally preferable for you to start by assuming a reason other than malice for negative events. In general, assuming malice as a cause of a negative event will cause you to experience more anger and stress than assuming other reasons. Therefore, you can generally benefit from not assuming the worst from the start, in terms of your emotional wellbeing and productivity.

Essentially, using Hanlon’s razor can help you quickly assess situations that you are in, and can help you deal with those situations in a better way.

In addition, from a philosophical perspective, using Hanlon’s razor can be seen as the “doing the right thing”, since it relates to the principle of charity, which represents the idea that you should start by assuming the best possible interpretation of other people’s statements and actions.

Adopting this stance is also beneficial for non-philosophical reasons, since giving people the benefit of the doubt at first can help you communicate with them in a more productive manner, that makes them more likely to cooperate with you in the future. This is especially important in relationships, both personal and professional, where assuming that the other person did something which had a negative outcome out of malice can be detrimental if you end up being wrong.

Finally, another valuable benefit of using Hanlon’s razor is that, in some cases, it could 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 next-door neighbor is making a lot of noise. Instinctively, you might start out by assuming that they are aware that what they are doing is bothering you, and that they just don’t care, which is a mindset that causes you to believe that you shouldn’t bother asking them to stop.

However, by implementing Hanlon’s razor, you could realize that they are doing this not because they don’t care about bothering you, but because they’re simply unaware that what they’re doing is bothering you. This could encourage you to take positive action, such as asking them to stop, which you might not have done otherwise.

Overall, implementing Hanlon’s razor offers various benefits, including helping you feel less stressed out, and helping you communicate better with others. Next, you will see how you can implement Hanlon’s razor, in order to benefit from it as much as possible.


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 in your everyday life is relatively simple, which is why it’s such a helpful principle to remember.

Essentially, Hanlon’s razor can be implemented any time you find yourself trying to find a reason for why someone did something that ended up having negative consequences, by negating your initial assumption that their actions occurred due to malice.

In the following sections, you will see a few specific guidelines that will help you implement Hanlon’s razor effectively, by expanding its scope, by accounting for the egocentric bias, and by learning how to assess the situation when deciding whether or not to use Hanlon’s razor in the first place.


Expanding Hanlon’s razor

While the original formulation of Hanlon’s razor is useful, it can be improved by modifying it a bit, to reach the following formulation:

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

This formulation involves two important modifications from the original one:

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

This is important, because focusing only on malice and stupidity limits the meaning of this adage in a problematic way, since people can do things which end up having bad outcomes for others, even if they are not driven by malice or stupidity.

For example, if you’ve applied to a job and haven’t heard back after a few days, you might prematurely 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 applicable, since you’re unlikely to attribute that person’s behavior to malice in the first place. Furthermore, you’re also unlikely to attribute their behavior to stupidity, since it’s more likely that there is an alternative explanation, such as the fact that they’re still processing applications from candidates.

By expanding Hanlon’s razor to account for negative reasons other than malice and for alternative causes other than stupidity, you could realize that applying Hanlon’s razor can be beneficial, by helping you not immediately assume that the reason that you haven’t heard back is that you’re not good enough.

Moreover, by expanding Hanlon’s razor this way, you are more likely to find the true cause of the other person’s action.

For example, if you send someone an email with a question, and they don’t reply back after a few days, you might assume that it’s because they’re actively ignoring you. If the only alternative explanation to this is that they’re stupid, you’re going to be less likely to apply Hanlon’s razor in this case, and less likely to find the true cause for their behavior.

By expanding Hanlon’s razor to account for alternative causes, you could realize that they might not have replies due to some other reason, such as because they forgot, because they’re busy at the moment, or because they’re trying to find the relevant information that they need in order to reply.

Overall, there are many alternative explanations for behaviors that can affect you in a negative way, beyond malice and stupidity. These can range from negative things, such as ignorance, carelessness, and incompetence, to more reasonable things, such as the fact that the other person needs more time in order to deal with the issue at hand.

Therefore, by expanding the scope of Hanlon’s razor in order to take alternative causes into account, you can benefit from using this principle in a far wider range of situations, and from being more likely to find the true cause behind other people’s actions.


Accounting for the egocentric bias

The egocentric bias is the tendency to rely on our own perspective when we interpret other people’s actions. This means that if, for example, you are an expert in a certain topic or emotionally invested in something, you might be more predisposed to believe that someone who does something negative is doing it intentionally.

For example, when you are an expert at a certain skill and see a novice doing something that they shouldn’t, it can sometimes be natural for you to assume that they did it intentionally, because for you, it’s obvious that what they did was wrong, and the egocentric bias makes it difficult to see things from their perspective.

In order to overcome the egocentric bias and make it easier for yourself to implement Hanlon’s razor in such situations, you can use self-distancing techniques. This involves trying to put yourself in the other person’s shoes, so that you can see things from their perspective.

This is important to do when you’re implementing Hanlon’s razor, because it can help you identify cases where you’re likely to incorrectly assume that someone did something on purpose, when that wasn’t the case.


Exceptions to Hanlon’s razor

While Hanlon’s razor is a good rule of thumb, it should be viewed as a guiding principle, rather than as an absolute truth. This is because, there are, in reality, some situations where a negative outcome should be attributed to malice, rather than stupidity, ignorance, or any other causes.

This means that even though you should strive to give people the benefit of the doubt where possible, implementing Hanlon’s razor shouldn’t cause you to be naive or unprepared.

As such, when deciding when to implement Hanlon’s razor, you should take the following factors into consideration:

  • How likely it is that an action occurred due to reasons other than malice. 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 the person’s past actions into account, as well as their general personality, their abilities, and what they stand to gain from acting maliciously
  • What are the potential costs associated with incorrectly assuming malice. The more costly it will be for you to incorrectly or prematurely assume malice, the more predisposed you should be to assuming that whatever happened had happened due to a reason other than malice.
  • What are the costs associated with incorrectly assuming reasons other than malice. The more costly it will be for you to mistakenly assume that someone acted for reasons other than malice, the more cautious you should be when implementing Hanlon’s razor.

Accordingly, there are situations where you might choose not to use Hanlon’s razor, 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 after all, and to then only accept an alternative explanation after you have sufficient evidence indicating otherwise.

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”.

Keep in mind 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

In general, Hanlon’s razor in its current form is attributed to Robert J. Hanlon, who purportedly submitted it to a 1980 book containing a compilation of various jokes related to Murphy’s law (which is the adage that “anything that can go wrong will go wrong”). However, since the underlying principle behind Hanlon’s razor has been mention in different formulations throughout history, it’s difficult to attribute it to a specific person.

For example, an early version of this adage appears in the novel The Sorrows of Young Werther, where Goethe famously 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.”

Author Robert Heinlein also mentioned this concept in his novel Logic of Empire, when one character tells another:

“You have attributed conditions to villainy that simply result from stupidity.”

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 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.”

Beyond the different formulations of Hanlon’s razor itself, there are also some related principles that have been mentioned. For example, in the novel Time Enough for Love by Robert Heinlein, an important principle is mentioned, which should be considered when taking Hanlon’s razor into account:

“Never underestimate the power of human stupidity.”

Another relevant principle which 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.”

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

“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.”

Overall, it’s difficult to be perfectly certain what is the origin of the underlying idea behind Hanlon’s razor, since it has been proposed in various formulations throughout history.

Nevertheless, since this principle represents a valuable guideline when it comes to decision making, the important thing is to understand the basic rationale behind it, so that you can implement it effectively.


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 can be improved, by modifying it to say that you should “never attribute to negative reasons that which is adequately explained by other causes“. This is important, because focusing only on malice and stupidity unnecessarily limits the scope of this adage.
  • Using Hanlon’s razor can be beneficial, since people often tend to assume that a bad outcome that they experienced occurred due to some negative reason, even when that isn’t the case. This can be detrimental, when it causes you to feel unnecessary stress, and when it hinders your ability to take action and to communicate with others.
  • When implementing Hanlon’s razor, it’s important to take into account your egocentric bias, which is the tendency to view things from your own perspective when interpreting other people’s actions. This is because the egocentric bias makes us more likely to overestimate the likelihood that someone knows that what they did affected us negatively, in cases where the negative impact of their actions is not necessarily obvious to them.
  • When deciding whether or not to implement Hanlon’s razor, you should consider the likelihood that the other person acted maliciously, and weigh the potential cost of incorrectly assuming that they acted out of malice, as well as the cost of incorrectly assuming that they acted due to a different reason.