Hanlon’s Razor for Sharper Thinking

You re-read the text, the two sentences you’ve written and rewritten, one more time.

You’ve only been on a few dates, but you just know. The laughs, the chemistry, the connection… it’s there. Your friends said to wait two days, but what do they know? She’ll be happy to hear from me!

You read the message again. Deep breath. You click send.

And the moment you do, you start to lose your shit.

You check your phone a minute later. And two minutes later. And a half hour later. And two minutes after a half hour later. Just relax. You read what you wrote again. It hasn’t changed.

The little voice in your head, the storytelling machine embedded in each of our minds, is getting louder. Two exclamation points! AND a winky face? What self-respecting dude uses a winky face? What was I thinking?!? I knew I should have waited another day. Why am I so stupid?!? You try to tell yourself it hasn’t even been an hour, that this is normal, but your animal brain won’t listen. She’s really not into me. I can’t believe it. Maybe there’s somebody else?

An hour passes. Your limbs are heavy, your stomach is dancing, your head is buzzing and clouded all at once. Full body sadness. I was so sure this time. You’ve moved right past self-doubt and on to rationalization. It’s their loss! You can do better, anyway. You don’t really believe it.

Your phone buzzes.

“Hey! Sorry, got called into work last min – was away from my phone. Free this weekend? :)”


We all jump to conclusions. Our narrative instincts crave a story to explain the world around us, even when there’s no evidence to justify such a tale. Uncertainty turns us into amateur mind readers and miniature conspiracy theorists in the blink of an eye.

In philosophy, a razor is a rule-of-thumb used to eliminate or “shave off” unlikely explanations. Say hello to my favorite razor:

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

This principle, named Hanlon’s razor, helps us recognize the stories we create without evidence for what they are – fiction.1 The key idea is not that everything has an innocent explanation or can be dismissed as stupidity. The real message is to never assume intent. The world is filled with more mistakes and misunderstandings than malicious motives and grand schemes. Hanlon’s razor teaches us not to assume intention without evidence to back up that assumption. Never underestimate the power of stupidity, incompetence, or randomness.2

Did your boyfriend ignore something you said? It’s possible he’s seeing someone else, or that he isn’t as into you as he used to be. More likely? He’s just a goon who got distracted and made a mistake.

Upset your boss never replied to your email? It’s possible she doesn’t like you, or that she’s hoping to make your life miserable until you quit. More likely? She just got busy and forgot.

It’s painfully easy to let our worst instincts run our lives. We all hear the voice in our head that assumes the worst whenever things go wrong, or obsesses over what other people think. That voice fills us with anxiety and drowns our better judgement.  Learning to quiet that voice – to stop ourselves from assuming intent – makes us more rational, more empathetic, and happier people.

Hanlon’s razor isn’t just a powerful principle for understanding our personal lives and relationships. Applying Hanlon’s razor can filter out the trash in a media environment fueled by outrage-clicks. The news is quick to assign intentions to behavior likely caused by incompetence or ignorance.

Apple’s iPhone X made news in 2017 when it’s new facial recognition technology struggled to differentiate Chinese faces. Was the bug in Apple’s new tech caused by a mistake in the development process? Or was the iPhone’s newest feature evidence of racism? The headlines rushed to the “racism” explanation without considering incompetence or neglect. Gotta get those clicks!

In 2016, Vice reported that Elon Musk follows zero women on Twitter – clear evidence of misogyny! Musk responded that he uses Twitter almost exclusively to keep track of news organizations, and that he follows as many women as men on Instagram.3 Assuming malicious intent is a recipe for trouble.

Like everything else in the world, the rush to assume intention is at its worst in politics. In the Obama years, the President’s supporters saw every maneuver as evidence that Obama was playing “12-dimensional chess.” Any apparent misstep must be intentional, from struggling to pass legislation (he’s making Republicans look bad!) to bungling the crisis in Syria (it’s a set-up for his next move!). Time has shown that Obama was reading and reacting with the rest of us; missteps were just missteps. The mind readers were wrong.

The same argument has popped up during the Trump Presidency; every tweet or scandal is read by supporters as a sign that Trump is thinking several moves ahead of the competition (it’s all a distraction cooked up by a media mastermind!). Of course, opponents of both Presidents see malice or hate as the driving force of the exact same decisions. Hanlon’s razor pushes us to put our partisan leanings aside and ask whether there’s real proof of intent, or if we are acting as political mind readers.

Hanlon’s razor can be taken too far. There are bad actors in the world, and sometimes there really are dark motivations or larger schemes behind an action. The key is to never assume a master plan or clear intent without evidence.

Evil genius is rare, but stupidity is everywhere.

 

 

 

  1. Hanlon’s razor is named after Robert J. Hanlon, who coined the aphorism in 1774. There is some dispute over who came up with the principle first – it has been credited to many other thinkers, including Napoleon and Johann Wolfgang von Goethe. Similarly, there are different versions of the razor itself. Some only reference stupidity (and don’t mention neglect), while others are multiple sentences long and much more broad. If you’re upset because you’re a stickler for phrasing of philosophical razors… just know I chose this version with malicious intent.
  2. Funny coincidence – that’s actually the title of the LaVar Ball documentary to be released in 2021.
  3. This is the first time “I follow lots of chicks on Instagram” was ever offered as a defense.

4 thoughts on “Hanlon’s Razor for Sharper Thinking”

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *