Hanlon’s Razor (and why people are nicer than you think)

There is a line in Robert A. Heinlein’s short story ‘Logic of Empire’ which beautifully reveals the misunderstanding behind most of our social grievances. As one character laments mankind’s immorality, another explains:

“I would say that you have fallen into the commonest fallacy of all in dealing with social and economic subjects. […] You have attributed conditions to villainy that simply result from stupidity.”

The error is a very human one. We are inherently egocentric. Our understanding of the universe is shaped through our personal experience with it. Life’s events unfold for us, not around us. The problem is that we assume we play as prominent a role in everyone else’s story. When someone is rude, it is because they are annoyed with us. When someone is upset, it must be something we’ve done. We perceive a negative response as an act of malice towards us, rather than a result of factors entirely unrelated to our existence. In fact, we perceive a negative response when it was most likely neutral.

Hanlon’s Razor

A large part of our communication is nonverbal. We read signs and signals through facial expressions and interpret subtext through context. The trouble is that we get it wrong a lot of the time. Evolution has made us very presumptuous mind-readers.

Hanlon’s Razor is an aphorism that helps us to take a step back and cut through the scenarios that we have built up in our head. It is most commonly expressed:

Never attribute to malice that which is adequately explained by stupidity

Replace stupidity with tiredness, hunger, stress, laziness, ignorance, misunderstanding, shyness… and you begin to build up a more realistic view of why people behave the way they do. A more empathetic view where we see each person as a complex human being dealing with their own issues, not just a side character in our story.

People’s behaviour, most of the time, has little to do with us. We construct unhealthy and unhelpful narratives in our head. Hanlon’s Razor challenges us to examine and reinterpret negative experiences. Perhaps your boss 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.

Assume the best intentions

Of course there will be many instances where we have directly influenced someone’s behaviour. There will be times where we are the outlet for someone’s anger. And there will be times where their response is justified. Generally, however, it is simply circumstance or fear, not malice, that drives negative emotion. After all, have we not snapped at others because we’ve had a bad day, rather than because they’ve done anything particularly wrong? That one instance doesn’t make us a bad person.

So what happens when we choose to believe that, beneath the dirt of the day, most people are genuinely good-natured, like ourselves? What happens when we take Hanlon’s Razor a step further and choose to assume the best intentions with everyone we meet? When we turn to empathy to help explain the world around us.

Not only will you find your day filled with many more positive moments but you will quickly see that most people are really quite lovely.