Hanlon’s razor is a heuristic which states “never attribute to malice that which is adequately explained by moderately rational individuals following incentives in a complex system of interactions”. It attempts to eliminate unlikely explanations for human behaviour. It may be considered to be Occam’s razor, applied to social relations.
What is a heuristic?
A heuristic is a mental shortcut that enables us to make faster judgements in situations that are ill-defined, vague or complex. Although efficient, heuristics can be either helpful or damaging depending on the context.
What is a “razor”?
A philosophical razor is a type of heuristic. They aim to enable us to create and provide better explanations by discounting complex or unlikely explanations.
The most popular philosophical ‘razor’ is Occam’s razor. It states that “entities should not be multiplied beyond necessity”. In other words, when deliberating on alternate hypotheses, choose the one with the fewest necessary assumptions.
Why use Hanlon’s razor?
Human’s in particular are prone to cognitive biases, examples could be the spotlight effect (the tendency for individuals to assume that more attention is focused on them), or the affect heuristic (our tendency to come to conclusions and take action based on how we feel rather than rational analysis). Acknowledging information asymmetry and that others may not be as self-aware or knowledgeable can be beneficial to us all.
As noted above, people are exposed to such things as the spotlight effect and affect heuristic. We also have a habit of attributing intentionality to the actions of others. This means that we may misconstrue the motives of others, often negatively. The reason for this bias is due to negative consequences having a greater perceived or real effect than positive ones.
Hanlon’s razor works best combined and contrasted with other mental models such as:
- The availability heuristic. This mental model suggests that we misjudge the frequency of events. In particular those events that are vivid, emotional and memorable. Many have the tendency to keep and maintain an “internal” scorecard of other’s mistakes
- Confirmation bias. The tendency to look for information that confirms a pre-existing belief. When cognitive dissonance arises, we tend to aim to realign our worldviews
- Bias from dislike or hate. When we dislike someone or something, we are more likely to attribute their actions to malice
- The attributing of our own faults, flaws and failures on to someone or something else. This cheap psychological mechanism is called projection. It serves nothing more other than to maintain a possible self-image
Limitations to Hanlon’s razor
Though a useful heuristic, it is not guaranteed to correctly identify the motives of others and should be applied with caution. There are most certainly those that act out of malice and bad intentions. When applying Hanlon’s razor, consider the following:
- How likely is that action to have occurred for reasons other than malice/bad intentions — the more likely it is, the more probable it did not occur due to malice. Consider the past actions of an individual or group and outcomes of those actions
- What are the costs associated with incorrectly assuming malice/bad intentions — It may be more costly to incorrectly assume an individual has acted out of malice than not
- What are the costs associated with incorrectly assuming non-malicious intentions — Is it more costly to assume that an individual acted non-maliciously when in fact they did act out of malice/bad intentions
In some situations it may be wise to choose not to assume non-malicious intentions because the likelihood of that person acting maliciously is high, or that the cost is too great to assume otherwise. In such situations it may be beneficial to assume malice or bad intentions first, until an acceptable alternative explanation or evidence is provided. This is a “guilty until proven innocent” approach, the “inverse” of Hanlon’s razor, which is “innocent until proven guilty”.
- The rule is not always true
- The rule goes wrong occasionally
- The rule is NOT asking you to be naïve
Suggested uses of Hanlon’s razor
Hanlon’s razor can be widely applied to life and it’s many facets, some examples could include:
- Media. The modern media treats community outrage and emotional reactions as a commodity to profit from. This takes form in their content which seeks to attribute emotional content such as malice to that which may be explained through competence or ignorance. They are becoming more skilled at generating such assumptions. When looking at newspapers, websites, and social media, the application of Hanlon’s razor can be beneficial
- Relationships. It is common for damage to occur in relationships due to misconceptions in intent. Often individuals believe that another is intentionally trying to cause harm or create problems. In most cases this is a result of inability or accidental mistakes. Barriers in communications will contribute to this, semantic or otherwise. Through the use of Hanlon’s razor one might identify unintentional actions and highlight the need for help, or maturation. This allows one not to react emotionally and regain, or maintain composure and clarity of thought and reason
- In most cases, it is better to assume that a negative event has occurred due to stupidity or incompetence rather than malice
- The effective use of mental models such as Hanlon’s razor advocates for a fact-based decision-making response to internal or external negative events
- The use of Hanlon’s razor may lead to better relationships and smarter problem-solving with more efficient resource allocation