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.
|Hanlon’s Razor||Hanlon’s Razor is a philosophical principle and a form of adage that suggests that one should not attribute to malice what can be adequately explained by stupidity or ignorance. It implies that people often make mistakes or act without malicious intent, and attributing negative motives may not be accurate. Instead, it encourages giving others the benefit of the doubt.|
|Origin||The principle is named after Robert J. Hanlon, who is not its originator but helped popularize it. Variations of this concept can be traced back to earlier sources, including a 1774 epistolary novel by Johann Wolfgang von Goethe. Hanlon’s Razor encapsulates this idea in a concise and memorable form.|
|Similar Concepts||Hanlon’s Razor is related to other aphorisms, such as Occam’s Razor (“the simplest explanation is usually the correct one”) and the principle of charity (interpreting others’ statements or actions in the most favorable way possible). These principles share the idea of approaching situations with a bias toward simpler, more benign explanations.|
|Application||Hanlon’s Razor is often applied in problem-solving, interpersonal relationships, and communication. It reminds people to avoid making hasty judgments about the intentions of others when misunderstandings or errors occur. It promotes a more empathetic and constructive approach to resolving conflicts and improving communication.|
|Caution||While Hanlon’s Razor encourages a charitable interpretation of others’ actions, it doesn’t imply that malicious intent is impossible. In situations where there is evidence of harmful intent, it is important to address those concerns appropriately. Hanlon’s Razor is a guideline for everyday interactions rather than a rule without exceptions.|
|Psychological Bias||Hanlon’s Razor aligns with the idea that humans tend to exhibit a fundamental attribution error, where they attribute others’ actions to inherent personality traits rather than external factors. Recognizing this bias can lead to more understanding and less unwarranted suspicion.|
|Influence||Hanlon’s Razor is frequently cited in discussions about human behavior, communication breakdowns, and online interactions, where misunderstandings and conflicts can arise. It serves as a reminder to approach such situations with a mindset of patience and a willingness to consider alternative explanations.|
|Conclusion||Hanlon’s Razor is a practical and often wise approach to interpersonal interactions, reminding us to avoid jumping to conclusions about the motives of others. It encourages empathy, understanding, and more effective communication by attributing errors and misunderstandings to factors like ignorance rather than malice.|
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.
What causes Hanlon’s razor?
Hanlon’s Razor is not caused by any specific factor and, to some extent, has emerged as a heuristic to help individuals interpret the actions of others in a more empathic manner.
Nevertheless, the tendency for people to assume that hurtful actions are directed toward them can be explained by two cognitive biases.
These include the affect heuristic and the spotlight effect.
The affect heuristic
The affect heuristic is a mental shortcut where an individual’s emotional response to a situation or stimulus influences their decision-making and judgment. In essence, decisions are made based on the gut feel of the situation as opposed to a more objective or rational analysis.
When the individual assumes malice is directed toward them, it usually invokes a powerful emotional response that clouds their thought processes.
The spotlight effect is a phenomenon where individuals tend to believe they are being observed and scrutinized by others more than they actually are.
The effect relates to one’s appearance, behavior, and actions and the false belief that either of these characteristics is the focus of someone else’s attention.
The term “spotlight effect” was coined by psychologists Thomas Gilovich and Kenneth Savitsky in 1999 and is based on their research on social cognition. The effect is a type of cognitive distortion or egocentric bias that causes the individual to rely too heavily on their own perspective.
Examples of Hanlon’s razor in business
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.
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.
In 2016, it was discovered that Wells Fargo employees had opened millions of unauthorized bank and credit card accounts for customers and, in the process, caused serious financial harm and impacted customer credit scores.
The scandal resulted in heavy fines and penalties for Wells Fargo and its brand reputation also suffered. Some suspected that the scandal was the result of a deliberate strategy to boost sales and profits at the expense of customers.
However, the investigation that followed concluded otherwise. It was found that the scandal was due to a combination of unrealistic sales targets, inadequate training, and employee incentives that encouraged unethical behavior.
Despite their unethical behavior, it was found that most staff were not malicious in their intentions. Instead, they were told to follow a flawed business strategy with too much emphasis on meeting sales targets and not enough on customer service and acceptable standards of conduct.
Theranos was a healthcare company that promised to revolutionize blood testing with its proprietary technology. However, in 2015, it was revealed that the company’s technology did not work as advertised and that it had also misled investors and customers about product efficacy.
This scandal resulted in the dissolution of Theranos and criminal charges against founder and CEO Elizabeth Holmes. Perhaps understandably, many were quick to conclude that the end of Theranos was the result of a fraudulent scheme by Holmes and her associates.
However, as time passed, it became clear that a combination of factors was present. These included a lack of proper scientific validation, inadequate oversight and governance, and an organizational culture characterized by secrecy and deception.
While there were undoubtedly intentional acts of fraud committed, the root cause of the problem was a systemic failure to prioritize scientific rigor, transparency, and ethical behavior.
In other words, Hanlon’s Razor assumes that the scandal was more likely to be due to incompetence and ignorance rather than deliberate malice.
The benefits of Hanlon’s razor thinking
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
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.
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.
- 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.
- Facebook’s Cambridge Analytica Scandal: Many believed that Facebook intentionally sold user data for profit. While there were serious oversight and privacy issues, the primary cause seemed to be a combination of lax data sharing policies and third-party misuse, rather than an intentional effort by Facebook to harm its users.
- Google’s Wi-Fi Data Collection: In 2010, Google’s Street View cars inadvertently collected personal data from Wi-Fi networks. Some speculated this was a deliberate act of surveillance. Google acknowledged the error, indicating it was an unintentional outcome of their data collection process.
- Samsung Galaxy Note 7 Explosions: When these phones began exploding, there were theories about sabotage or intentional harm. In reality, it was a battery design flaw and a rush to market that led to the issue, not a malicious intent.
- Boeing 737 Max Crashes: Some conspiracy theorists suggested these were intentional acts. Investigations, however, pointed towards flawed software and inadequate pilot training.
- Zoom’s Security Issues: In 2020, as Zoom’s usage skyrocketed due to the pandemic, the platform faced “Zoombombing” incidents. While some assumed malicious intent or negligence, the rapid and unexpected growth of the platform led to security oversights which the company then worked to address.
- Tesla’s Autopilot Incidents: There have been accidents involving Tesla’s Autopilot feature. While critics suggest that Tesla willingly puts a dangerous product on the road, the company stresses the feature’s beta nature and the need for driver supervision, pointing towards misuse rather than intentional harm.
- Snapchat’s Poorly Received Redesign: In 2018, Snapchat released a significant app redesign which faced massive backlash. Some users believed the company was trying to push them towards certain content or advertisers. In reality, it was a misjudgment in understanding user preferences.
- Microsoft’s Windows 8 User Interface: Microsoft’s radical redesign in Windows 8 was often criticized and led to theories about the company trying to force users into a new ecosystem. The simpler explanation was that Microsoft misjudged the market’s readiness for such a change.
- Uber’s Greyball Tool: Uber was found to be using a tool to deceive regulatory authorities. While this does lean more towards intentional deception, the company’s rapid growth and “move fast” culture might have led to decisions without fully considering their ethical implications.
- Fitbit’s Skin Irritation Incident: Some users of Fitbit’s Force wristband reported skin irritations. While there were claims of the company knowingly using harmful materials, the issue was attributed to users reacting to certain materials, and not a case of the company intentionally causing harm.
- Hanlon’s Razor: “Never attribute to malice that which is adequately explained by stupidity.” It advises against assuming malice when a negative event or outcome can be attributed to incompetence or ignorance.
- Understanding Hanlon’s Razor: The principle of a razor in philosophy allows individuals to eliminate unlikely explanations for a phenomenon. Hanlon’s razor suggests that problems and bad experiences are part of life and are usually not driven by malicious intent.
- Causes of Hanlon’s Razor: It is not caused by any specific factor but can be related to cognitive biases such as the affect heuristic and the spotlight effect.
- Examples of Hanlon’s Razor in Business:
- British Airways IT shutdown was caused by a power malfunction, not malice.
- Apple’s slower iPhone performance was due to battery optimization, not intentional forced upgrades.
- Wells Fargo’s unauthorized accounts scandal resulted from unrealistic sales targets and inadequate training, not a deliberate strategy.
- Theranos’ downfall was attributed to systemic failures and lack of transparency, not just deliberate fraud.
- Benefits of Hanlon’s Razor Thinking:
- Improved relationships by assuming positive intent and practicing patience.
- Better resource allocation by focusing on fact-based decision-making rather than worst-case scenarios.
- Hanlon’s Razor vs. Occam’s Razor: Both propose simpler explanations for complex scenarios, but Occam’s Razor focuses on choosing the solution with the fewest assumptions.
- Examples of Hanlon’s Razor in Other Contexts:
- Media and Apple: Siri’s limitations were not due to malicious intent but an ongoing development process.
- COVID-19 Pandemic: Government decisions were often based on limited information and not a malicious agenda.
- Team Building: Assuming positive intent fosters trust and healthy relationships among team members.
|Email Miscommunication||A colleague sends an email with unclear instructions, leading to confusion. Instead of assuming malicious intent, Hanlon’s Razor suggests assuming the colleague made an oversight.||– Encourages constructive communication and collaboration by giving people the benefit of the doubt in cases of ambiguity or misunderstandings.|
|Software Bugs||A software program encounters errors, causing disruptions. Rather than assuming deliberate sabotage, Hanlon’s Razor suggests considering the possibility of coding mistakes.||– Promotes a problem-solving approach, where the focus is on identifying and rectifying errors rather than assigning blame.|
|Late Project Delivery||A project deadline is missed due to poor planning or unforeseen challenges. Instead of assuming a deliberate attempt to delay, Hanlon’s Razor suggests looking at factors like resource constraints or inadequate planning.||– Fosters a more understanding and supportive work environment by recognizing that mistakes and challenges can happen unintentionally.|
|Misinterpreted Social Media Posts||A social media post is misunderstood or misinterpreted, leading to online conflicts. Hanlon’s Razor advises considering that the person may have worded their post poorly rather than assuming malice.||– Encourages empathy and constructive online interactions by assuming good intentions, especially in text-based communication.|
|Unreturned Phone Calls||Someone fails to return a phone call or message. Rather than assuming intentional disregard, Hanlon’s Razor suggests considering the possibility of missed notifications or genuine oversight.||– Promotes better interpersonal relationships by reducing assumptions of neglect and fostering understanding.|
|Traffic Accidents||Two drivers collide in a traffic accident. Instead of assuming malicious intent, Hanlon’s Razor suggests considering factors like distraction or misjudgment as possible causes.||– Encourages empathy and civility on the road by recognizing that accidents often result from mistakes rather than deliberate harm.|
|Missed Deliveries||A package is not delivered on time. Rather than assuming malicious intent from the delivery person, Hanlon’s Razor suggests considering logistical issues or other factors.||– Promotes patience and understanding in customer service interactions, recognizing that errors can occur without ill will.|
|Misplaced Items||A coworker accidentally misplaces an important document. Instead of assuming theft or sabotage, Hanlon’s Razor advises considering the possibility of absentmindedness.||– Encourages a supportive work environment by avoiding unwarranted accusations and maintaining trust among colleagues.|
|Forgotten Appointments||Someone forgets about a scheduled meeting. Hanlon’s Razor suggests attributing it to a lapse in memory rather than assuming disrespect.||– Fosters positive professional relationships by giving individuals the benefit of the doubt in cases of scheduling errors.|
|Social Awkwardness||A person exhibits socially awkward behavior in a business meeting. Hanlon’s Razor advises considering social anxiety or inexperience rather than assuming rudeness.||– Encourages empathy and inclusivity in business settings by recognizing that not all awkward behavior is intentional.|
|Billing Errors||A customer receives an incorrect bill. Instead of assuming overcharging, Hanlon’s Razor suggests considering billing system errors or data entry mistakes.||– Promotes fair and customer-centric business practices by addressing billing discrepancies without assuming intentional wrongdoing.|
|Unfulfilled Customer Orders||A customer’s order is not delivered as expected. Rather than assuming negligence, Hanlon’s Razor suggests looking into inventory issues or fulfillment errors.||– Maintains trust and customer satisfaction by addressing order fulfillment issues with a problem-solving mindset.|
|Communication Delays||A business communication is delayed, causing inconvenience. Hanlon’s Razor advises considering technical glitches or scheduling conflicts as potential causes.||– Encourages effective communication and understanding between business partners by avoiding assumptions of deliberate delays.|
|Misquoted Prices||A customer receives a product or service at a different price than expected. Instead of assuming price manipulation, Hanlon’s Razor suggests investigating pricing database errors or miscommunications.||– Upholds transparency and customer trust by addressing price discrepancies fairly and transparently.|
|Inventory Shortages||A business experiences shortages of a particular product. Rather than assuming withholding stock, Hanlon’s Razor suggests considering supply chain disruptions or production delays.||– Promotes effective supply chain management and problem-solving to address inventory issues.|
|Customer Service Responses||A customer receives a suboptimal response from customer service. Instead of assuming indifference, Hanlon’s Razor suggests acknowledging the possibility of miscommunication or unfamiliarity with the issue.||– Encourages customer service representatives to approach issues with empathy and a commitment to resolving concerns.|
|Data Breaches||A data breach occurs, exposing customer information. Hanlon’s Razor advises considering the possibility of cyberattacks or vulnerabilities rather than assuming internal misconduct.||– Fosters a proactive approach to cybersecurity and data protection by focusing on prevention and response rather than assigning blame.|
Connected Thinking Frameworks