credit: Chad Miller

Hanlon’s Razor: How to Avoid Common Missteps in Judgment

On becoming more restrained, and thinking more clearly in the face of adversity

I was at the local doughnut shop the other day. At the early hour I was there, it is a favorite hangout for retirees. They get a doughnut, some coffee, and they sit at one of the dozen tables in the place, discussing everything from the latest gossip to national politics. From time to time, if I have to wait long enough to be served, I’ll hear some real gems.

On this occasion, I got to hear something that gave me pause (and I’m paraphrasing):

Of course they’re saying there’s no evidence of wiretapping. All of those reporters are being paid off by Obama people!

Pushing aside the particular absurdities of the claim, it commits an error that I have found very pervasive lately — both in political discussion, and in general: people are constantly assuming organized, intentional action, when ignorance, disorganization, or confusion are a simpler and more likely explanation. Thinking that way is a violation of a sound principle of better thinking: Hanlon’s Razor.

What Hanlon’s Razor Is

Simply put, Hanlon’s Razor is this:

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

The origins of the principle are a bit unclear, but supposedly it appeared in 1990 in a collection of aphorisms and principles maintained by the early computing community called The Jargon File. The principle in question has been attributed to a man named Robert J. Hanlon, of Scranton, Pennsylvania. Some attribute it to earlier authors, such as Shakespeare, Arthur C. Clarke, or Margaret Thatcher’s press secretary, Bernard Ingham — who all recorded very similar suggestions in prior years.

Perhaps a more complete summary of the spirit of the razor comes from a post on the online community LessWrong:

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.

Why Hanlon’s Razor is Valuable

Whatever the exact origins, the principle is sound because it aids in better thinking. Better thinking aids in better judgment and decision making. Better judgment and decision making aid in better action.

Hanlon’s Razor is and effective check on a tendency that we humans have: to quickly judge that something bad that happens to us is the result of an intentional evil action. This kind of thinking is mistaken for 2 reasons:

  1. Intentionality of the robust kind we assume is rare.
  2. Evil intentionality is even rarer.

Broadly speaking, even when something bad happens to you that you know someone else did — don’t assume that it was done to you specifically, or that the person meant anything by it.

Think of any time someone has cut you off while you’re driving on the road. The usual reaction is to judge that person to be an asshole, inconsiderate, and terrible. But most of the time, that person was barely aware of you or anyone else on the road near them. They were acting out of ignorance, not intentionally to cut you off, but merely to get where they were trying to go.

Your judgment does nothing but make you angry, and thus more likely to do something quick and ill-conceived yourself.

Using the Razor to Your Advantage

Hanlon’s Razor has at its heart another guiding principle that is very helpful in strategy: don’t assume intent of any kind — just deal with facts. More precisely, deal with what has been perceived — not with what you or others have inserted into your analysis of what you’ve perceived.

As an example: you met a someone at a conference recently who seemed very interested in working with you on a project. She didn’t have a business card, but you typed her email in your phone, and went on your merry way. You type of a long and detailed email about how you can offer value to the project, and express your willingness to move forward ASAP — strike while the iron is hot!

She doesn’t respond.

You email again, asking if perhaps you were moving too quickly, but that you still want to work on the project you were both excited about.

Again, no response.

You send a third email, saying that perhaps you guys should go your separate ways, as clearly, there is a mismatch in the enthusiasm for the project.

The next day, you receive an email from her, but not in reply to yours. The subject reads: “I was hoping to have heard from you!”. The email address is one letter off from the one you’ve been frantically emailing. Whoops!

Rather than looking merely at the facts, you assumed you knew the cause of your not receiving emails. You further assumed intentionality — that your would-be collaborator was ignoring you. You took two steps too far, and lost time and traction because of it.

Here are two hard and fast maxims to help you avoid making the mistake above.

Whenever someone’s presentation of “the facts” includes the word “because” — be skeptical. No bare facts ever include a “because”.
The less you assume you know, the smarter you become.

The more you can avoid jumping to conclusions in your thinking, the better off you will be. Hanlon’s Razor is but one reminder of one species of overreaching we do in our thinking. Being restrained in judgment and action will pay off in the long-run. You will tend to let emotion enter into your decision-making less often. You’ll remain curious, which is key in being a skilled learner. It also can’t hurt your reputation.

If you like this piece, please consider subscribing to my weekly newsletter — Woolgathering. You can get more valuable stuff like this — once per week, in your inbox.