Own My Growth

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Hanlon’s Razor- A Mental Model To Deal With Our Defensive Reactions

Hanlon's Razor

Misunderstandings and neglect create more confusion in this world than trickery and malice. At any rate, the last two are certainly much less frequent. 

This is a brilliant quote by Wolfgang Goethe, the German Philosopher.

We spend a large portion of our day communicating with others and making decisions based on that. We all live complex lives where things are also constantly going wrong or not as per expectations. Unfortunately, a reaction sometimes is to blame the nearest person and assume they have malicious intent or are part of a conspiracy when this occurs.

  • Your co-worker fails to give you a report in time- You see a hidden agenda that wants you to fail.
  • Your organization sponsors a couple of colleagues for an executive development program. You see a plan to marginalize you. 
  • Your friend does not respond to you even after you called him a couple of times. You think he is avoiding you because he doesn’t want to help you. 

We forget how many times we have made mistakes ourselves whenever we see someone messing up in front of us. We forget the number of times we have missed calling someone back, failed to submit a report on time, or cut a colleague instead of supporting him. When someone else does the same thing, it becomes a source of intense irritation because we attribute malice.

Even the most intelligent people make mistakes. More than malice, inability, or neglect are more likely to be at fault in most situations. If a situation makes us angry or frustrated, it can be beneficial to consider if those emotions are justified particularly when there is no malintent involved.

Until recently, I did not realize there is a term to describe the human bias of attributing malice to the mistakes of others. It’s called Hanlon’s Razor.

Hanlon’s Razor suggests that we should ‘Never attribute to malice that which can be adequately explained by stupidity or incompetence or neglect.’

Hanlon’s Razor is a mental model that teaches us not to assume the worst intention in the actions of others. It’s a nice heuristic that will help us positively manage our misgivings without falling into the trap of making negative assumptions, particularly when dealing with relationships.

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