Hanlon’s Razor: How to Be Less Judgmental and More Empathetic

Do you ever feel like the world is against you? If so, you are not alone. We all tend to assume that when things go wrong, it’s because the people in our lives are conspiring against us.

Your colleague didn’t tell you about an important meeting? He must be trying to make you look bad and beat you to the promotion.

Your friends meet up without inviting you? They must be going behind your back because they don’t like you anymore.

Your kids put finger paint all over your kitchen wall? They must be trying to drive you insane.

But in reality, these explanations aren’t very likely to be true. It’s much more probable that your colleague simply forgot to tell you, that your friends assumed you were busy, and that your kids have yet to learn the difference between a kitchen wall and a canvas.

And that’s why Hanlon’s razor is such a handy tool.

Hanlon’s razor is an adage, coined by Robert J. Hanlon, which is best summarized: “Never attribute to malice that which can be adequately explained by neglect.”

It’s essentially a special case of Occam’s razor, which states that “Among competing hypotheses, the one with the fewest assumptions should be selected.”

In a situation where something can be explained either by malice or neglect, the latter is more likely.

Malice is a big assumption, but negligence is not. People rarely have genuinely bad intentions, but they make mistakes all the time.

And by applying Hanlon’s razor in our interactions with others, we can negate the effects of many of our cognitive biases. For example:

  • The Fundamental Attribution Error — We tend to blame the mistakes of others on their personality, and our own mistakes on the circumstances. If someone else is driving too fast, it’s because they’re an inconsiderate idiot. But if we’re the one who’s speeding, it’s because the situation warrants it. Hanlon’s razor helps us assign situational reasons to everyone’s mistakes — not just our own.
  • The Availability Bias — We often misjudge the frequency of recent events, especially if they’re vivid and memorable. Many of us keep a mental scorecard of other people’s mistakes. When a new mistake is made, it’s magnified by errors in the past, and we start imagining malicious intent. Hanlon’s razor helps us see each mistake as an isolated occurrence. 
  • The Confirmation Bias — We have a tendency to seek out information that confirms our pre-existing beliefs. If we expect malicious intent, we are likely to attribute it whenever possible. Hanlon’s razor helps us stop looking for confirming evidence so we can accurately identify honest mistakes.

So, whenever you feel mistreated, keep in mind: “Never attribute to malice that which can be adequately explained by neglect.”

It will make you less judgmental and more empathetic. You’ll be able to give other people the benefit of the doubt. And that will make for better relationships and a lot less stress.

Of course, there are people out there who do have malicious intent, and that needs to be taken into account. You don’t want to be blind to behavior that is intended to be harmful.

But, as a rule of thumb, assuming neglect before malice will make you more accurate in your judgments — and a better fellow human.

This article is an excerpt from my book The Decision-Making Blueprint.