I was biking to the grocery store a few days ago. As I was pedaling along happily, a bright-red car door materialized in front of my face…
I swerved. I almost fell off my bike, but was able to recover. As soon as I was stabilized, I looked back to yell at the man who’d opened the car door and almost killed me.
“What a @#$%ing dick,” I muttered to myself as I pedaled into the parking lot of the grocery store. In that moment, this man was clearly an asshole.
Or was he?
As I walked through the grocery aisles, I realized that I’d failed to apply Hanlon’s Razor to the situation:
“Never attribute to malice that which is adequately explained by stupidity.”
Most People Aren’t Out to Get You
Hanlon’s Razor is a specific case of Occam’s Razor, so to understand it we must first define Occam’s Razor:
The more assumptions you have to make, the more unlikely an explanation is.
Assuming someone’s actions are motivated by malicious intent is a big assumption. If there are simpler explanations for their actions, those explanations are more likely to be correct.
Here’s a more explicit definition of Hanlon’s Razor:
- 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.
As you work through these explanations, you slowly zoom out to a larger picture of what’s going on in a situation.
Going back to my bike example, the most likely explanation is that he didn’t check his mirrors before opening his door. He’s not a dick — it’s a forgivable error, so it falls into category #3 above.
Becoming a Better Human Being
By understanding and working Hanlon’s Razor into the way you see the world, you’ll realize a whole host of benefits:
You’ll be less judgmental. If you zoom your perspective out a bit, you’ll realize that most people are focused on their own lives and how to best get through their days. They don’t think about you as much as you might imagine and certainly don’t go out of their way to malign you. Therefore it’s far easier to cut them some slack for their actions, especially when those actions affect you.
You’ll develop deeper relationships.
You’ll look at the world more rationally. Most of us walk around focused on ourselves all day long. Things don’t just happen during our days, they happen to us. But this is often not the case, because as we’ve learned:
- People can be stupid, even intelligent people
- People can make simple mistakes due to being tired, hungry, angry, etc.
- People can be incompetent
- We might not have enough information to see the situation clearly
You’ll be a more empathetic person. All of the benefits above sum up to an overall increase in your ability to empathize with others. After all, empathy is the ability to understand and share the feelings of another. By seeing their actions more clearly, you can step into their point of view and truly empathize.
Hanlon’s Razor in Relationships
The most obvious and most valuable application of Hanlon’s Razor is in relationships. Most of us make somewhat Machiavellian maneuvers, whether we’re aware of it or not. We’re constantly attributing the actions of people around us to all sorts of motivators, most of which are incorrect.
We might think that a coworker knows we’re annoyed when he chews with his mouth open. Or a boss is intentionally keeping us from the promotion we so clearly deserve. Or a significant other doesn’t care about us enough to wash the dishes in a timely manner.
To escape the trap of false assumptions, picture people as children. Children know far less about the world than we do, and often make mistakes that we (rightly) attribute to a lack of experience or knowledge. Adults aren’t so different from children. Most of us have massive gaps in our knowledge, skillsets, and social awareness.
It’s far more likely that our coworker is oblivious to the fact that he’s chewing with his mouth open. That our boss might be too busy worrying about a more pressing issue in the company and is simply overlooking us. That our significant other has no idea how much we’re bothered by dirty dishes in the sink.
Hanlon’s Razor in the Media
Because of the incentive structure of modern media (see our book short on Trust Me, I’m Lying for more information), media outlets are using emotional triggers in their coverage instead of rationally covering the news.
Some outlets are bigger offenders than others, but almost all that rely on advertising revenue have a perverse incentive to maximize their page views and clicks, meaning they have become experts at deliberately manufacturing malicious intent when simpler explanations exist.
A perfect example is a hit-piece by Vice’s Motherboard outlet, who released a piece titled “Elon Musk Follows Zero Women on Twitter.” Shortly after they tweeted the article out, Elon responded:
@motherboard I use twitter for news orgs. My Insta has same women as men. What’s up with the phoney PC police axe-grinding?
Instead of thinking of a few other reasons besides “Elon is a misogynist,” Vice’s Motherboard pushed the article out, knowing it would spread virally due to the combination of Elon being a massive public figure and the anti-women implication that the title suggests.
Becoming familiar with Hanlon’s Razor will help you detect when other entities and organizations are deliberately not applying it in order to further their own agendas.
Sometimes, People Are Assholes
The purpose of this piece is to introduce you to Hanlon’s Razor and encourage you to add it to your mental toolkit. But don’t let it turn into to the proverbial hammer and over-apply it in the world.
When over-applied, you become blind to actual bad actors in the world. While it’s rare to encounter a truly malicious person or organization, they do exist. Attributing every action to stupidity or incompetence would be a mistake. If it’s more complex for a person to have been acting stupidly or incompetently, it might be the case that they were acting maliciously.
Not all malice needs to be conscious. It’s possible for someone to be unconsciously malicious towards us, yet another nuance of interpersonal relationships we need to watch for.
Hanlon’s Razor belongs in your mental toolkit, but so do a wealth of other mental models that help you navigate the world.