I walked into the breakroom kitchen at a company to put my coffee cup into the dishwasher. As so often happens in workplace kitchens, the sink was filled with piles of cups full of dirty water. I said to the client accompanying me:
”I always lose my faith in humankind when I see workplace kitchens. How is it possible that the coffee cups never end up in the dishwasher? How can people be so neglectful and selfish?”
The client looked at me and admonished me with a smile: “Now you’re doing the exact opposite of what you taught us! What about, ‘What else could this mean?’ What if no one taught these people to put dishes in the dishwasher when they were kids? Or what if someone forgot to tell them during onboarding that in this company, everyone takes care of their own coffee cup?”
I was simultaneously triumphant about and embarrassed by this. Triumphant, because my teaching had clearly been listened to. Embarrassed, because I fell into that exact same trap myself. In a way, that is good, since it proved once again how common it is to fall into these traps and why we simply have to climb out of them with great effort, time after time.
There are tools to aid us in our climb, and one of them is Hanlon’s razor.
Hanlon’s razor gives us another perspective
‘Never attribute to malice that which can be adequately explained by neglect.’
Robert J. Hanlon
The principle behind Hanlon’s razor is simple: never assume that something was done maliciously if you can find an explanation based on neglect. We have a habit of assuming that something that we see as unpleasant was done with malicious intent.
When someone is late, we interpret that they don’t care about us or respect our time. When someone leaves dishes in the sink, we interpret that they’re neglectful. When someone doesn’t deliver on time what they promised, we interpret that they intentionally want to make our lives more difficult. When a colleague says something vague to us, we immediately assume that they meant to hurt us.
However, most of the time this first and automatic interpretation is false. Generally, it has nothing to do with us. Generally, people have some totally different reason for their behaviour. Sometimes, there’s no reason, things just happened. In any case, we should stop to reconsider the first interpretation and assume that everything is not as it initially seems.
We don’t mean to be malicious ourselves – at least most of the time
One piece of evidence for Hanlon’s razor can be found in ourselves. We’re constantly making all sorts of mistakes and missteps. We sometimes say something really foolish. Sometimes we’re late. Occasionally, we’re careless. We hear and listen poorly, we prioritise wrong, we can’t deliver what’s expected of us.
However, we do none of this maliciously. The ultimate intent of none of this is to be mean. At least most of the time.
This is indeed the challenge with Hanlon’s razor. Of course, there are some individuals and acts that are malicious. There are exceptions where a person has acted maliciously either consciously or unconsciously.
Hanlon’s razor doesn’t suggest that we should be endlessly gullible, and neither do I. The point is not to let anyone take advantage of or mistreat us. The point is to gather more evidence beyond our first reaction before reaching any conclusions. The point is to question and challenge so that we reach as truthful an interpretation as possible.
Malicious or careless?
When something that really and truly makes your blood boil happens, stop. Ask yourself: how do I know that this was maliciously done? Could it be that someone was simply careless or thoughtless? What if it’s not at all about me?
TL;DR: Hanlon’s razor assumes neglect instead of malice
- People have a tendency to assume that an unpleasant thing was intentionally malicious.
- We quickly give things the worst possible interpretation and stick to it.
- Instead, Hanlon’s razor advices us, ”Never attribute to malice that which can be adequately explained by neglect.”
- Usually, the person had no ill intent and it all comes down to thoughtlessness or carelessness.
- When you give a chance to these interpretations, you can approach the matter more sensibly and calmly.
- This doesn’t suggest that you should be gullible: it’s possible for some people and actions to be malicious.