Hanlon’s Razor: Why Not Everybody is Out to Get You

“Misunderstandings and neglect create more confusion in this world than trickery and malice. At any rate, the last two are certainly much less frequent.”

— Johann Wolfgang von Goethe, The Sorrows of Young Werther

An intern fails to deliver a project report to you on time. You think he doesn’t respect your authority. A colleague ignores your feedback and goes ahead with the design. You assume he must be trying to ignore you so that he can take all the credit. Your friend unduly takes credit for something you think you deserved. It is very likely she must be harbouring jealousy against you.

When you spend a large part of your day communicating with others and making choices based on that, somewhere or the other things are bound to get out of control, or go against you. You generally tend to find somebody to blame for these mishaps, and assume they might have malicious intent. You might feel your competitors, your superiors, your colleagues, and sometimes even you family might be trying to derail you. If sometimes you feel like that, don’t worry, you are not alone.

But the fact is that these interpretations which you tend to jump into rarely come true. The intern most probably thought today was Tuesday, not Wednesday. Maybe your colleague had a deadline to meet and he completely forgot about your feedback. And your friend might not have had a clue that you were dying to get credit. This is where Hanlon’s Razor comes in:

Never attribute to malice that which can be adequately explained by stupidity.

Stupidity is a proxy for ignorance, incompetence, forgetfulness, tiredness, shyness, aloofness, etc.

However, this error is a very natural to occur. Your understanding of the world around you is shaped by your personal experiences with it. You play the lead role in your story and everything revolves around you. The problem begins when you start assuming that you play a prominent role in everyone else’s story as well.

For example, when someone is rude, you assume it is because they are trying to annoy with you. When someone is aloof, you think they must be giving you the silent treatment because of something that you’ve done. You start to perceive every negative response as an act of malice towards you, rather than a result of factors entirely unrelated to your existence. In fact, you start perceiving responses to be negative when they were most likely neutral.

A large part of human communication is non-verbal. This only adds to the problem. You read signs and signals through facial expressions and subconsciously interpret subtext. Evolution has turned you into a very presumptuous mind-reader. The problem is that you get it wrong a most of the time.

You just construct unhealthy and unhelpful narratives in your head. The truth is that people’s behaviour, most of the time, has little to do with you.

Most scenarios are similar to somebody cutting you off while driving. You don’t go and assume that that person wanted to harm you specifically. He barely even knows about your existence, or anybody else on the road. He is acting for his own interest, or out of ignorance, to reach wherever he is trying to go.

Napoleon Bonaparte: ‘Never ascribe to malice that which is adequately explained by incompetence.’

Hanlon’s Razor is an effective check on your tendency to quickly judge that something bad that happens to you is the result of intentional evil actions of others against you. More than often, the intentionality you assume is rare. And evil intentionality is even rarer.

As a rule, whenever something bad happens to you, and you know for sure someone is behind it-for starters, don’t assume that it was done to you specifically with evil intention. In fact, do not assume intent of any kind - just deal with the facts. Deal with what you have perceived - not with what you have already inserted into your head to bias you from what you’ve actually perceived.

The less you assume you know, the smarter you become.

Hanlon’s Razor is a useful mental model that actually challenges you to examine and reinterpret negative experiences. Perhaps your boss had sent a blunt email because she was in a rush, not because she was being rude. Maybe a friend’s passive-aggressive message was simply missing punctuation. The waiter might have messed up your order because he had just been shouted at, not because he’s incompetent.

Applying Hanlon’s Razor in day-to-day life also allows you to better develop relationships, become less judgmental, and improve rationality. Hanlon’s Razor allows you to give people the benefit of doubt and have more empathy.

Try replacing stupidity with tiredness, hunger, stress, laziness, ignorance, misunderstanding, shyness, etc., and you will soon begin to build up a more realistic view of why people behave the way they do.

Never assume malice when stupidity will suffice. Never assume stupidity when ignorance will suffice. Never assume ignorance when forgivable error will suffice. Never assume error when information you hadn’t adequately accounted for will suffice.

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