Hanlon’s Razor: Things Aren’t as Nasty as You Think

Hanlon’s razor reminds us to avoid attributing behaviour to malice where it can be adequately explained by neglect or stupidity.

The internet and social media are a cauldron for conspiracy theories. This isn’t new, and perhaps it’s not even a problem. Ideas should be freely proposed and debated, and those without merit should become nothing more than a distant whimper in a dark and isolated corner of the internet. This process becomes more challenging, however, when called upon to make rapid judgements of dynamic situations.

The central issue is that we are grossly biased towards the negative, and the internet serves to magnify these biases. As negativity swirls around the cauldron, many will jump on news that validates our assumption of the worst: an out-of-context video here, a dash of inside information from a friend of a friend of a friend of a friend there, a drop of spurious data here.

All these things play into our tendency to attribute behaviour to some sinister overarching goal. But the truth is almost always much simpler.

What Is Hanlon’s Razor?

This idea is neatly summarised in a mental model known as Hanlon’s razor. In the form of a simple aphorism, Hanlon’s razor tells to “never attribute to malice that which is adequately explained by stupidity”.

The central idea of Hanlon’s razor is that we address a common attribution bias – our tendency to assume sinister motive – by attributing behaviour to the more likely explanation of negligence or incompetence.

When we apply Hanlon’s razor to our day-to-day lives, it can enable better decision making. As we encounter people and choices in everyday life, referring to this principle can counterbalance our innate tendency to assume they are out to get us.

How to Use Hanlon’s Razor

Putting this simple aphorism into practice requires a shift in how we consume information. This begins with how we consume events and behaviours that unfold physically before our eyes but extends inexorably to how we consume the vast quantities of negative information churned out by the conveyer belt of mainstream media and social media.

#1: Relating to Others

Let’s say you are at work. That important project is reaching its climax and you know your chances of promotion hinge on it. But you can’t finish it on your own. There simply isn’t the time. While you’ve finished most of the of the final presentation, you delegate the tidying up to a colleague that you trust. But when the presentation finally arrives back in your inbox 30 minutes before it is due, you can’t believe your eyes. It’s a total mess, and now you don’t have time to correct it.

Now let’s say you’re in a café. You’re exhausted and your coffee has been prepared just as you like it. You head to your table, ready to quench your thirst and rest those weary legs. But in your approach another customer collides with you. Coffee goes everywhere. You’re covered in hot coffee, and you’re wearing a new shirt.

Are they out to get you? Did your colleague want to suffocate your chances of promotion by sabotaging the presentation? Did that buffoon in the café see you were having a crappy day and decide to take it to the next level?

How we react to these situations depends on how we consume the information. Both situations are adequately explained by negligence before malice. Rational thought will recognise this, but lethargy and anxiety can quickly stifle rational thought.

That’s why sometimes a model like Hanlon’s razor is a useful reminding device to direct our thinking. It’s a framework for relating to others rationally. It can help regulate overreactions to events and steer our attention to the real root cause.

Perhaps your colleague was already overloaded but too nice to say no. And perhaps the guy that bumped into you in the café was looking the other way. Neither suggest malice.

#2: Rationalising the Media and Government

This article started with the internet for good reason. Outrage and criticism have always sold like hotcakes, but the internet now spreads these sentiments like wildfire.

When reading the news or browsing social media, it pays to generously apply Hanlon’s razor. An assumption of incompetence before malice can better shape our views of governments, businesses and individuals.

This is particularly relevant as we survey the actions of our governments. “They can’t possibly be this incompetent, can they? This must be deliberate.”

Alas, our elected representatives and their staff are not as competent as we might give them credit for when asking this question. Indeed, in most cases – though we must accept not in all cases – a government’s poor policy choices are a reflection of incompetence and groupthink, not malice.

Surrounded by yes men, critical state-level decisions are taken without dissent in the group. And worse, as the Dunning-Kruger effect shows us, the more incompetent our policymakers are, the more confident they are in their conviction that they can play God in complex civilisational systems.

Disadvantages of Hanlon’s Razor

Of course, all of this assumes the best of people. Critics might therefore argue that Hanlon’s razor risks creating blindspots. Look no further than the textbook psychopath to see that some behaviour really is driven by malice.

The trick, then, is to apply Hanlon’s razor according to the context. It isn’t a universal thinking model, but it can instead form part of a toolkit of useful mental models that help shape our view of the world.

Bottom line: Things probably aren’t as nasty as you first think, but not all damaging behaviours can be explained away by incompetence. Our application of Hanlon’s razor should take stock of that reality.

People Deserve More Credit

As we head into the coming years, the underlying principle of Hanlon’s razor is likely to become even more important. Sensitivity has spiked. Those things that contradict people’s world views now more often cause offense than provoke rational debate.

A vast portion of this problem is driven by a gradual uplift in our confirmation bias, supported by the rise of the technological blessing that is the internet. But it’s also driven by our innate tendency to assume malice in others.

The truth is that people deserve more mutual credit, at least on this count. Differences of opinion don’t signal that we’re out to get each other. Only a small minority could be said to genuinely exhibit behaviour and opinions best attributed to malice before negligence or lack of knowledge.

So if you take one thing from Hanlon’s razor, let it be this: where appropriate, give people the benefit of the doubt. Don’t attribute to malice that which is adequately explained by negligence.

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