It's easy to be stupid: Hanlon's razor

Filed under posts • Tagged: Critical thinking

You may have heard of Occam’s razor: the principle that given many competing explanations we should prefer those that make the fewest assumptions.

Today we meet Hanlon, the lesser known of the razors.

But why all the razors in the first place? The term “razor” in this case means a mental shortcut that helps us to “shave off” unlikely explanations. Razors are intended as a guide—a first line of defence—rather than anything final or definitive.

Hanlon’s Razor may be less famous than Occam, but it’s more relevant to our day-to-day lives and can be contemplated often to great effect. It is often stated as so:

“Do not attribute to malice that which can be adequately explained by stupidity”


One reason is that stupidity is simply more common than malice. Malice requires intent and planning, whereas stupidity gushes forth with no effort on the part of many well-meaning people.

People make mistakes every day, and other humans are often the ones to uncover the results of their errors. Amongst the interconnected complexity of our public digital lives, mistakes are easier than ever to make and often more costly.

Sometimes people try really hard and still make a pigs arse out of it.

We are fooled by TV dramas and blockbuster films about the prominence of malevolence. We consume neatly written story lines that feed on constant conflict and one-upping.

In reality, people are busy, stressed and wrestling with their own demons. They are clumsy, inconsistent and forgetful. Your neighbour is a thousand times more likely to accidentally knock over your flower pot, rather than executing a well-planned sabotage of your front lawn.

It’s not just the prevalence of stupidity that makes Hanlon worth contemplating: it also cultivates a more humane mindset.

To assume malice means constructing a narrative about why this person has plotted against us, why they “are” who they are, and so on. Assuming malice means we are surrounded by rotten people.

It pulls us away from the facts of what happened and creates a paranoid ideology that he or she is doing such and such because she knows this and that about me.

We are extremely good at reframing all of the evidence to confirm our hunches, and it doesn’t take long before suspicion dominates our perception, making us feel victimised and taken advantage of.

In contrast, the assumption of stupidity gives you some head space and leaves your options open. Instead of conjuring a conspiracy and compounding the problem by scowling at your co-worker every time they walk past, you note the sleight and assume they made a mistake.

If you do discover someone was acting out of ill intent, you are still free to subject them to your full wrath. You’ve not missed any opportunity. You’ve just saved yourself a good deal of stewing in the meantime.

Next time someone messes up, assume stupidity.

Save yourself the imagined pain of being personally targetted by another. Save yourself the psychological turmoil and assume that people are just doing what they do so well: making mistakes. You’ll be a happier and better person for it.

—Dan Bartlett
5 May 2018

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