Hanlon’s Razor

The Basic Idea

Many are familiar with the frustration of having a difficult roommate. When living with someone who can’t bother to do their dishes, take the trash out, or be quiet in the wee hours of the morning, it’s easy to become frustrated. You might start to believe your roommate is intentionally negligent, has a bad personality, or maybe they’re trying to rile you up.

In situations like this, it’s important to step back and consider a few things. Does your roommate have a reason to dislike you? Do they have a track record of being malicious to others? If not, maybe they just don’t realize how irritating their actions are, or they simply don’t have dishes high on their priority list. Maybe they never had to take out the trash growing up. Maybe they don’t realize how loud their midnight phone conversations are. Have you communicated your frustration effectively with them, or have you assumed that they already know how inconsiderate their actions are? If you haven’t communicated your frustration, their inconsiderate actions may be partially explained not by a simple lack of awareness.

Making these kinds of considerations is a way of applying Hanlon’s Razor, a heuristic device that tells us not to assume malicious intent behind actions when a lack of awareness or knowledge can adequately explain the actions. Douglas W. Hubbard succinctly states the principle as such:

“Never attribute to malice or stupidity that which can be explained by moderately rational individuals following incentives in a complex system of interactions.3

It is easy to assume that the hurtful actions of others are intentionally designed to harm us, particularly since we are prone to cognitive biases such as the spotlight effect and the affect heuristic. In many cases, the other people in our lives may simply not possess the awareness or knowledge to understand the impact of their actions. Acknowledging the information asymmetry can help us to communicate better and improve our relationships – with our friends, co-workers, partners, and yes, your annoying roommate.

Never attribute to malice that which is adequately explained by stupidity.1

– Robert. J. Hanlon of Scranton, PA

Key Terms

Hanlon’s Razor: As stated by Robert. J. Hanlon, a heuristic telling us to “never attribute to malice that which is adequately explained by stupidity.”

Heuristic: A mental shortcut that can help us make faster judgments in situations which are vague or complex. Heuristics can either be helpful or damaging depending on the context.

Razor: A philosophical razor is a type of heuristic which can help us to arrive at better explanations by discounting unnecessarily complex or unlikely explanations. The original and best known philosophical ‘Razor’ (of which Hanlon’s Razor is a derivative) is Occam’s Razor, which advises us to use explanations involving the least necessary assumptions.

Spotlight Effect: This bias describes the egocentric tendency for individuals to assume that more attention is focused on them and their actions than actually is the case.

Affect Heuristic: refers to our tendency to come to conclusions and take action based on how situations make us feel rather than through a more rational analysis.

History

The term ‘Hanlon’s Razor’ and its accompanying phrase originally came from an individual named Robert. J. Hanlon from Scranton, Pennsylvania as a submission for a book of jokes and aphorisms, published in 1980 by Arthur Bloch. The book is titled Murphy’s Law Book Two: More Reasons Why Things Go Wrong!5 In the following years, the phrase fell into general usage and in 1990 it was published in the Jargon File, a glossary of slang for computer programmers. Computer programmers used the phrase as a reminder that many of the problems in programming came from honest mistakes and not from intentional sabotage.5 Finally, Douglass W. Hubbard reformulated the phrase in 2009 for application within management consulting. For Hubbard, the phrase is a reminder to communicate better within work teams.3

Although Hanlon’s Razor was coined by Robert Hanlon, the idea contained within his phrase did not originate there. Hanlon’s Razor is a modification of the older and more well-known ‘Occam’s Razor,’ a philosophical heuristic which dates back to the 14th century, and provides the more general advice to stick with explanations that involve the least possible assumptions. Instead of assuming that the rustling outside your window is an eavesdropper, you might assume it was a neighborhood pet, or a sudden breeze. The latter explanations require little additional explanation, but the former requires a lot of it: Who is spying on you? What are their motives? How did they get past your security system? Hanlon’s Razor can be seen as an application of this general principle to the way we think about other people’s motives. It may be tempting, for example, to assume that your boss didn’t respond to your text because they dislike you, but maybe they were just busy or had their phone on silent.

The intuitive force behind Hanlon’s Razor is evident from its seemingly unrelated appearances in other individual’s work and art. A very similar sentiment is expressed in Robert. A Heinlein’s (1941) novella Logic of Empire, which contains the quote “you have contributed conditions to villainy that simply result from stupidity.” Even further back in time, the renowned poet and author Johann Wolfgang von Goethe wrote in The Sorrows of Young Werther (1774) that “misunderstandings and lethargy perhaps produce more wrong in the world than deceit and malice do. At least the latter two are certainly rarer.1

People

 

Robert J. Hanlon

While little is known about the author of the phrase, this individual from Scranton, Pennsylva-nia became well known for submitting his ‘Hanlon’s Razor’ aphorism to a book of jokes.

Douglas W. Hubbard

A management consultant and author of books relating to decision science. He is also the inventor of the Applied Information Economics method for applying decision science. Hub-bard reformulated Hanlon’s Razor for use in management consulting.

William Ockam

A 14th century philosopher who became the namesake for what is now called Occam’s Ra-zor. While the term was coined after his death, Ockam exemplified its message in his com-mitment to explanatory simplicity.

Consequences

While Hanlon’s Razor may seem more like a folk saying than a behavioural science concept, one does not have to look far to find support for the phrase within behavioural science. We know from the spotlight effect that individuals tend to believe things are about them even when they are not, and we know from the affect heuristic that we tend to draw conclusions based on how we feel, rather than calm assessment. And we have a tendency to mistakenly attribute other’s actions to their disposition or character rather than to facts about specific situations. We can also attribute intentionality to actions which were not performed in a thoughtful way. All of this makes it easy to see how we can misconstrue the motives (or lack thereof) for many of the actions of others, particularly when they affect us in a negative way.

It is important to remind ourselves of Hanlon’s razor in order to have better relationships at home and at work. The concept has also been applied when studying strained relationships between parents and their children. Parents often assume their children’s rebellious actions are targeted and designed to hurt them, even when this is not the intent of the child.2 By trying to honestly understand the perspective of children when they ‘act out,’ parents can improve the quality of their relationships. Or, instead of assuming that coworkers or teammates who make mistakes or don’t meet expectations are lazy or bad workers, it may be more useful to understand how work-related knowledge and expectations can be communicated more effectively.3

Controversies

Although Hanlon’s razor can be a useful tool, it should be applied with caution and a modicum of common sense. Remember that the razor is not a universal law, but a heuristic that can help us in decision making. It is possible that there will be instances where it is wrong. Maybe there are roommates who are secretly out to get you. While it is harmful to assume that people’s unintentional actions are malicious, it is also not a good practice to blindly assume people don’t understand the consequences of their actions when they negatively impact you. When in doubt about whether an action is malicious or simply driven by unawareness, it may be helpful to ask yourself questions such as: Has this person been told they shouldn’t do this before? Does their behavior change when they are corrected? Do they otherwise treat me with respect?

Case Study

COVID-19 Public Policy and The Media

It is useful to apply Hanlon’s razor when considering the implementation of public policy concerning the COVID-19 pandemic. Since the outset of the pandemic, governments and policymakers have had to scramble to design and implement policy measures to control the spread of the virus, and they have had to do so using data and scientific advice that is constantly being updated. Under these conditions, some governments have made decisions which ended up doing more harm than good. The United Kingdom’s decision to enter lockdown in 2020 later than other European countries led to increased infections and deaths compared to other countries.4 While some speculated that it was an intentional plot by the government aimed at reducing the elderly population, it may be simpler and more rational to opt for the non-malicious explanation that when faced with complex situations and constantly changing information, it is possible or even likely well-intentioned policymakers and government bodies will make mistakes when implementing policy.

Gendered Division of Housework

The second-wave feminist movement saw a large influx of women into the workforce. A major focal point of the movement then became the uptake of household chores by men. Although it can be argued men and women are becoming more equal in the workplace, women still tend to perform a greater proportion of unpaid labor that happens outside of work than their male partners. According to British national statistics in 2016, women did nearly 60% more unpaid housework than their male partners, despite the narrowing gender pay gap and increased number of women in the workforce.6

While, as article author Oliver Burkeman writes, “it would be easy, and perhaps not totally unfair, to explain this as another straightforward case of men acting like entitled jerks6” the real situation seems somewhat more complex. Part of the puzzle is that women who experience female-role socialization are more aware of housework tasks and place a higher value on their completion. Men are not typically brought up to place a high level of importance on household tasks, and often may not be aware of what needs to be done and may not remember to do it. As such, while it is tempting to attribute the housework labor divide simply to something negative about individual men’s dispositions, doing so may undermine a more pressing analysis of how gendered expectations within society create different levels of awareness concerning unpaid household labor.

Related TDL Content

Fundamental Attribution Error

Attributing the actions of individuals to their dispositions or characters rather than to situational factors is a cognitive bias that can lead us to make hasty judgments about those around us. Learn more about how it works and what to do about it here.

Remaining Vigilant In The Era Of Information Overload

Information overload does not only make it easier to make mistakes when making decisions but can also lead us to become apathetic about making the right decision. This piece gives suggestions on how to stay vigilant despite the overload of information and news concerning the COVID-19 pandemic.

Sources

  1. Farnam Street. (2015). Hanlon’s Razor: Relax, Not Everything is Out to Get You. https://fs.blog/2017/04/mental-model-hanlons-razor/
  2. Tina Gilbertson. (2020). Hanlon’s Razor and Estrangement. Psychology Today. https://www.psychologytoday.com/ca/blog/constructive-wallowing/202003/hanlon-s-razor-and-estrangement
  3. Genevieve Michaels. (2021). How teams can be more supportive with help from Hanlon’s Razor. Trello. https://blog.trello.com/trello-hanlons-razor
  4. Hustle Escape. (2020). Hanlon’s Razor: Things aren’t as nasty as you think. https://www.hustleescape.com/hanlons-razor/
  5. (2021) Hanlon’s Razor. https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Hanlon%27s_razor#:~:text=Hanlon’s%20razor%20is%20a%20principle,unlikely%20explanations%20for%20human%20behaviour.
  6. Oliver Burkeman. (2018). Dirty secret: why is there still a housework gender gap? The Guardian. https://www.theguardian.com/inequality/2018/feb/17/dirty-secret-why-housework-gender-gap

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