In philosophy, a razor is a principle or rule of thumb that allows one to eliminate or shave off unlikely explanations for a phenomenon, or avoid unnecessary actions. Occam’s Razor is one such well-known heuristic. I had written about it a few years back. You can read it here.
When it comes to reasoning, elimination is a more robust strategy than adding. Sherlock Holmes famously said, “Once you eliminate the impossible, whatever remains, no matter how improbable, must be the truth.”
Shaving off the untrue guarantees to leave you with the most probable version of the truth. From that logic, investigating any phenomenon using razor like thumb rules is a very efficient way of better thinking. Better thinking leads to better judgment and decision making. Better judgment and decision making result in better action.
Dilbert’s colleague in the comic strip is maliciously intelligent. But such intelligent malice is rare in the real world. Movies and fiction often use the acts of evil brilliance to make the narrative more interesting which distorts the world view of most people. An unfortunate outcome is that people start assuming deliberate intent to explain undesirable behaviour of others.
Hanlon’s razor challenges this skewed worldview. It says —
Never attribute to malice that which can be adequately explained by stupidity.
It’s not accurately known where this principle originated but supposedly it first appeared in 1990 in The Jargon File — a collection of aphorisms and principles maintained by the early computing community. Hanlon’s razor has been attributed to a man named Robert J. Hanlon.
Hanlon’s razor was later made popular by sci-fi author Robert Heinlein. He termed it as devil theory of sociology. There is a line in Heinlein’s short story ‘Logic of Empire’ which beautifully reveals the root cause of most of our social grievances. One character in the story explains:
I would say that you have fallen into the commonest fallacy of all in dealing with social and economic subjects. […] You have attributed conditions to villainy that simply result from stupidity.
I have tweaked Hanlon’s razor a bit and come up with my own version. It says:
Never attribute to intention that which can be adequately explained by ignorance.
We don’t encounter stupid people every day but we are almost always surrounded by ignorant souls (including our own if we’re humble enough to admit it). And ignorance often results in something called “defection by accident” — meaning that someone blurts out something stupidly (or acts on an impulse) because he couldn’t imagine the long drawn (second and third order) consequences of his words/action.
In casual, everyday situations, it’s not uncommon to find many people defecting by accident where they upset folks around them due to lack of reflection on potential consequences of their decisions.
Only ignorance isn’t always the culprit. Stupidity isn’t uncommon among smart people especially when they allow their impulses to guide their actions instead of pausing and consulting their rational faculties. In other words, many evil acts are purely the result of situational stupidity.
Less Wrong, a very popular blog on rationality, extends the idea of malice vs. stupidity:
Never assume stupidity when ignorance will suffice.
Never assume ignorance when forgivable error will suffice.
Never assume error when information you hadn’t adequately accounted for will suffice.
There’s a famous Zen anecdote based on the teachings of Chuang Tzu. A man loved his boat so much that he would clean it everyday. No one was allowed to touch his boat. One day on a foggy winter evening he decided to untether his boat and take it out for sailing. As he was enjoying every moment in his lovely boat, Thud! and something hit his boat. Apparently, another boat rubbed against his and scratched a chunk of its surface.
“Where the hell you think you are going, you moron?” the man yelled.
No response came from the other boat. This made him even angrier and he shouted one more time. Still no answer. Then he looked closely and realized, there was no one in the other boat. It was an abandoned and empty boat that was just drifting in the lake. In a second, the man’s anger vapourized.
Here’s an excerpt from Chuang Tzu’s parable of The Empty Boat:
If a man is crossing a river
And an empty boat collides with his own skiff,
Even though he be a bad-tempered man
He will not become very angry.
But if he sees a man in the boat,
He will shout at him to steer clear.
If the shout is not heard, he will shout again,
And yet again, and begin cursing.
And all because there is somebody in the boat.
Yet if the boat were empty.
He would not be shouting, and not angry.
If you can empty your own boat
Crossing the river of the world,
No one will oppose you,
No one will seek to harm you.
That’s a philosophical interpretation of Hanlon’s razor. It’s a very useful mental model to live a stress-free life when you realize that most of the times, the boat on the other side is empty.
At its heart, Hanlon’s razor asks us to trust the base rates. In the event of incomplete information or evidence, it’s always better to go with probabilities. At least your initial hypothesis should always be based on prior probabilities, i.e., the likelihood based on historical patterns. And probability, in the case of human behaviour, tells us that people don’t always step on your toes intentionally. Mostly, either they’re misinformed, or ignorant, or under the spell of situational stupidity, or a victim of a one-off error.
Matthew Cook, in is post subtitled Why People are Nice than You Think, writes:
A large part of our communication is nonverbal. We read signs and signals through facial expressions and interpret subtext through context. The trouble is that we get it wrong a lot of the time. Evolution has made us very presumptuous mind-readers. Hanlon’s Razor is an aphorism that helps us to take a step back and cut through the scenarios that we have built up in our head.
That’s one reason why emojis are so popular (and useful) in the age of text-based communication. A wrong emoji or an absence of a relevant emoji can make or break a WhatsApp conversation. I wish there was a Hanlon’s razor emoji which would go by default with every text message where no emoji was included in the original message.
Cook’s illustration is pretty awesome.
People’s behaviour, most of the time, has little to do with us. We construct unhealthy and unhelpful narratives in our head. Hanlon’s Razor challenges us to examine and reinterpret negative experiences. Perhaps your boss sent a blunt email because she was in a rush, not because she was being rude. Maybe a friend’s passive-aggressive message was simply missing punctuation. The waiter might have messed up your order because he had just been shouted at, not because he’s incompetent.
Shane Parrish in his post titled Relax, Not Everything is Out to Get You, writes:
Modern media treats outrage as a profitable commodity. This often takes the form of articles which attribute malice to that which could be explained by incompetence or ignorance. We see examples of this play out in the media multiple times a day. People rush to take offense at anything which contradicts their worldview or which they imagine to do so. Media outlets are becoming increasingly skilled at generating assumptions of malicious intent. When looking at newspapers, websites, and social media, it can be beneficial to apply Hanlon’s razor to what we see.
For example, when Apple’s Siri voice search launched, people noticed that it could not search for abortion clinics. This was immediately taken up as proof of misogyny within the company when in fact, a programming error caused the problem.
Hanlon’s razor has important implications in business and investing too.
A CEO is informed about a few instances of bad behaviour in his organization by some employees. The company policy says that such misdemeanors are unacceptable. Should the CEO fire them? Going by Hanlon’s razor, it would be better to give them the benefit of the doubt and speak to them directly. The odds are higher that there’s something broken in that company’s culture, processes, or systems which lead those employees to commit such mistakes.
Similarly, in investing, while trying to assess the quality of the management if you find red flags like pledged shares, or related party transactions, or some other instances of unfriendly behaviour towards minority shareholders, don’t always brush aside it as a corporate governance issue especially if the management doesn’t have a history of such questionable conduct. Look under the hood. Dig deeper. That’s how you find potential opportunities that markets often ignore.