hanlons-razor

What Is The Hanlon’s Razor And Why It Matters In Business

Hanlon’s razor is an adage, often quoted as such:

               “Never attribute to malice that which is adequately explained by stupidity.”

In other words, there is a tendency for individuals or businesses to assume malice when that malice is in fact stupidity.

Understanding Hanlon’s razor

Variations of Hanlon’s razor go back as far as German writer Johann Wolfgang von Goethe, who equated malice and stupidity with incompetence. However, the adage was named after Robert J. Hanlon, who submitted the quote for inclusion in a joke book. 

In the modern context, Hanlon’s razor is a somewhat philosophical concept. Indeed, the principle of a razor in philosophy is one that allows the individual to eliminate or “shave off” unlikely explanations for a particular phenomenon. 

When Hanlon’s razor is not taken into account, the individual or business who has a bad experience assumes that the world is against them. That the world or the individuals it consists of are malicious and intent on doing them harm. 

Instead, Hanlon’s razor advocates that problems and bad experiences are part of life. In the vast majority of instances, there is no malice behind them.

In marketing and business relationships, Hanlon’s razor is one of a suite of mental models that govern specific thought processes attached to examining a problem.

Examples of Hanlon’s razor in business

British Airways

When British Airways experienced an IT shutdown in 2017 that affected 75,000 passengers, consumers widely assumed that the airline was acting against them. 

Theories ranged from budget cuts to the outsourcing of work to India, or a combination of both. However, the shutdown was later determined to have been caused by a simple power malfunction.

Apple

There is a widespread belief that Apple tries to force people to upgrade to the latest iPhone by slowing the performance of older models. 

Yet Apple revealed that the slower performance was due to an update that decreased the load on older batteries and thus their tendency to cause these older model smartphones to crash.

The benefits of Hanlon’s razor thinking

  • Improved relationships. Say for example that a potential joint venture partner does not return a business’s calls. The business could assume the worst and conclude that the other party is acting maliciously toward them – souring the relationship in the process. Alternatively, the business who practices patience may receive a phone call in a few days explaining that a family member was taken ill and that the partner was still looking forward to a joint venture in the future.  
  • Better resource allocation. Instead of spending time and money planning for the worst-case scenario, businesses can divert resources to the less malicious (though far more likely) cause of a bad experience. This encourages fact-based decision making, which investor Charlie Munger advocates as essential to dismantling and then solving business problems that can often be governed by emotion.

Hanlon’s Razor vs. Occam’s Razor

occams-razor
Occam’s Razor states that one should not increase (beyond reason) the number of entities required to explain anything. All things being equal, the simplest solution is often the best one. The principle is attributed to 14th-century English theologian William of Ockham.

Similar to Hanlon’s Razor, Occam’s Razor proposes a simpler explanation for complex scenarios.

Indeed, Occam’s razor tells us that (all being equal) among the possible solutions, the simplest is the one that better fits a specific scenario.

Of course, Occam’s Razor is a heuristic, which means it fits well in complex scenarios with high ambiguity and uncertainty.

Thus, when a business is presented with several solutions to a problem, its best course of action is to choose the solution with the fewest assumptions.

In business, assumptions, especially wrong ones, can be very expensive.

The Occam’s Razor tries to minimize the cost of carrying wrong assumptions, underlying a business.

Hanlon’s razor examples

Here are some more examples of Hanlon’s razor at work.

The media and Apple

Media companies make money by treating negative events as a commodity, creating outrage among consumers, and then selling advertising space to consumers.

In fact, the media has become so skilled at subtly referencing malicious intent that many consumers are today extremely quick to be offended.

When Apple launched Siri in 2011, consumers observed that the service was unable to search for abortion clinics.

Almost immediately, Apple was vilified for taking a discriminatory stance or exhibiting so-called “Bible Belt” family values.

Soon after the issue was made public, Apple spokeswoman Natalie Kerris told The New York Times that the reason behind the error was because Siri was simply not sufficiently developed:

These are not intentional omissions meant to offend anyone. It simply means that as we bring Siri from beta to a final product, we find places where we can do better, and we will in the coming weeks.

The COVID-19 pandemic

Hanlon’s razor is also evident in the implementation of COVID-19-related public policy.

From the outset of the pandemic, governments have had to craft and implement legislation with no known precedent and in a very short space of time.

With that in mind, many governments around the world have implemented policies and procedures that have done more harm than good.

The United Kingdom’s decision to enter lockdown later than other European countries cost it dearly later in 2020, while the Australian government’s failure to contain an infection on a cruise ship caused a significant outbreak in Sydney.

With the benefit of hindsight, we understand that both decisions caused needless injury and death.

But this did not stop some in the public sphere making the outlandish suggestion that the government was looking to reduce the elderly population.

The non-malicious explanation is clearer, simpler, and more realistic.

Faced with a complex, dynamic, and novel virus, government officials were not equipped with the knowledge or information to make the correct decision every time.

Team building

Great teamwork is built on trust which itself relies on individuals assuming that others will not do them harm, possess good intentions, and are working toward the same goal.

Hanlon’s razor can be used to identify many of the common biases that distort the way people interact with others. One of the most prevalent is the availability bias or heuristic.

The availability bias describes the tendency for a team member to rely on readily available information rather than what is most relevant or contextual.

In a workplace setting, this can manifest as an assumption that we play an overly prominent role in the lives of others. 

When a colleague is rude, for example, it’s because of something we did. When a colleague is upset, it’s directed at us.

When we consistently make the connection between ourselves and the behavior of others, we tend to label their words or actions as malicious.

In reality, of course, the colleague may simply be having a bad day and their bad temper has nothing to do with us.

Hanlon’s razor encourages employees to become rational thinkers, develop healthier relationships, and become more productive in the workplace.

Key takeaways:

  • Hanlon’s razor argues that in most cases, it is better to assume that a negative event occurred because of stupidity or incompetence rather than malice.
  • Hanlon’s razor is one of several mental models of thinking that businesses can use. It advocates a fact-based decision-making response to internal or external negative events.
  • The benefits of Hanlon’s razor include better relationships with key stakeholders and smarter problem-solving resource allocation.

Connected Business Concepts

First-Principles Thinking

first-principles-thinking
First-principles thinking – sometimes called reasoning from first principles – is used to reverse-engineer complex problems and encourage creativity. It involves breaking down problems into basic elements and reassembling them from the ground up. Elon Musk is among the strongest proponents of this way of thinking.

Ladder Of Inference

ladder-of-inference
The ladder of inference is a conscious or subconscious thinking process where an individual moves from a fact to a decision or action. The ladder of inference was created by academic Chris Argyris to illustrate how people form and then use mental models to make decisions.

Six Thinking Hats Model

six-thinking-hats-model
The Six Thinking Hats model was created by psychologist Edward de Bono in 1986, who noted that personality type was a key driver of how people approached problem-solving. For example, optimists view situations differently from pessimists. Analytical individuals may generate ideas that a more emotional person would not, and vice versa.

Second-Order Thinking

second-order-thinking
Second-order thinking is a means of assessing the implications of our decisions by considering future consequences. Second-order thinking is a mental model that considers all future possibilities. It encourages individuals to think outside of the box so that they can prepare for every and eventuality. It also discourages the tendency for individuals to default to the most obvious choice.

Lateral Thinking

lateral-thinking
Lateral thinking is a business strategy that involves approaching a problem from a different direction. The strategy attempts to remove traditionally formulaic and routine approaches to problem-solving by advocating creative thinking, therefore finding unconventional ways to solve a known problem. This sort of non-linear approach to problem-solving, can at times, create a big impact.

Moonshot Thinking

moonshot-thinking
Moonshot thinking is an approach to innovation, and it can be applied to business or any other discipline where you target at least 10X goals. That shifts the mindset, and it empowers a team of people to look for unconventional solutions, thus starting from first principles, by leveraging on fast-paced experimentation.

Biases

biases
The concept of cognitive biases was introduced and popularized by the work of Amos Tversky and Daniel Kahneman in 1972. Biases are seen as systematic errors and flaws that make humans deviate from the standards of rationality, thus making us inept at making good decisions under uncertainty.

Bounded Rationality

bounded-rationality
Bounded rationality is a concept attributed to Herbert Simon, an economist and political scientist interested in decision-making and how we make decisions in the real world. In fact, he believed that rather than optimizing (which was the mainstream view in the past decades) humans follow what he called satisficing.

Dunning-Kruger Effect

dunning-kruger-effect
The Dunning-Kruger effect describes a cognitive bias where people with low ability in a task overestimate their ability to perform that task well. Consumers or businesses that do not possess the requisite knowledge make bad decisions. What’s more, knowledge gaps prevent the person or business from seeing their mistakes.

Occam’s Razor

occams-razor
Occam’s Razor states that one should not increase (beyond reason) the number of entities required to explain anything. All things being equal, the simplest solution is often the best one. The principle is attributed to 14th-century English theologian William of Ockham.

Mandela Effect

mandela-effect
The Mandela effect is a phenomenon where a large group of people remembers an event differently from how it occurred. The Mandela effect was first described in relation to Fiona Broome, who believed that former South African President Nelson Mandela died in prison during the 1980s. While Mandela was released from prison in 1990 and died 23 years later, Broome remembered news coverage of his death in prison and even a speech from his widow. Of course, neither event occurred in reality. But Broome was later to discover that she was not the only one with the same recollection of events.

Crowding-Out Effect

crowding-out-effect
The crowding-out effect occurs when public sector spending reduces spending in the private sector.

Bandwagon Effect

bandwagon-effect
The bandwagon effect tells us that the more a belief or idea has been adopted by more people within a group, the more the individual adoption of that idea might increase within the same group. This is the psychological effect that leads to herd mentality. What in marketing can be associated with social proof.

Other strategy frameworks:

Additional resources:

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