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Hanlon’s Razor

By Juan Carlos

Definition

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

In other words, don’t assume a person’s actions have the worst intentions when they can just as easily be explained as ignorance.

Why Use It

We spend most of our days communicating with others and interpreting their actions. Even though we know the world is complex, we are quick to accuse when something goes wrong.

Have you ever felt someone is against you? When something goes awry, do you jump to conclusions and overanalyze a scenario?

A mind can almost immediately misconstrue another’s questionable actions negatively. By doing so, you compromise communication and clarification. Worse, the effect of this mental trapping can distance you from people and lead you to miss out on opportunities.

Use the philosophical razor to convert those thoughts into more positive ones.

In practice, reframing scenarios in healthier ways to discount implausible explanations for human behavior is beneficial. By giving others the benefit of the doubt, you develop stable relationships.

When to Use It

In moments of anger, frustration, or disappointment with someone else’s actions, question whether your feelings are justified.

For example:

  • Has someone ever been late to or missed a mission-critical meeting?
  • Has someone ever been unresponsive to an important email?

If you are quick to react negatively in scenarios like the above, get curious about why. Use this reasoning tool to take a step back. Assuming someone’s intentions will most likely worsen the situation. Everyone makes mistakes, and the cause of them is often neglect or inability.

How to Use It

Folks commonly damage relationships by thinking others are deliberately causing problems for them. The razor is most valuable for bettering communication. Use it to help you evaluate a situation quickly, give people the benefit of the doubt, and facilitate better relationships.

Reframe a strong reaction to someone’s actions by asking yourself several questions:

  • Are there any other reasons they might have taken this action?
  • Are there any other situations where they acted this way?
  • Is it possible that I’m incorrect?
  • Am I biased in any way?
  • Is there any data that might justify why their action might be malicious?

How to Misuse It

The razor is a rule of thumb and reveals that folks’ intentions are mostly benign, but that is not to say people don’t act out of malice. Asking questions and ensuring you weigh the likelihood of someone behaving negatively towards you remains crucial.

Next Step

When someone makes a mistake, catch yourself before reacting. Assuming that someone behaved out of malice will cause you to experience negative emotions, such as anger or stress.

Save yourself the mental agony and approach the problem with curiosity and a desire to make things better.

Where it Came From

Robert J. Hanlon coined the term in 1980 as a submission for a compilation of various jokes published in Arthur Bloch’s Murphy’s Law, Book Two. But many others have voiced similar ideas since 1774, including Napoleon Bonaparte.

Hi, I’m
Juan Carlos

Fueled by a passion for storytelling and excitement for life design, I find joy in reframing narratives to illuminate paths toward fulfillment. My experience spans high-growth startups, filmmaking, and social impact, culminating in my authorship of “Mind Guide: 49 Mental Models for Effective Decision Making.” Through mentoring and coaching, I guide teams and individuals to discover purpose and cultivate a meaningful life.

My Story

I started in film, directing award-winning features such as ‘Know How’ and ‘Second Skin.’ These cinematic endeavors earned me recognition and allowed me to serve as a spokesperson for Adobe. I founded the White Roof Project, a grassroots climate activism campaign that mitigated the urban heat island effect and spurred community-led social change.

I carried my storytelling skills and passion for societal transformation as I transitioned into the startup ecosystem. Initially, I contributed to social impact apps, converting complex issues into accessible solutions. This early experience laid a foundation for my later work, where I led the development of groundbreaking products within high-growth startups. My work has underscored the potential of technology to innovate industries and amplify the quality of human life.