The longer I coach football, the more I realize that many of the ideas leading to success on the field also lead to success off it. One example is the idea that the person with the most accurate version of reality usually wins.
As a football coach, I want the most accurate idea of my team's strengths and weaknesses as well as our opponents. Having an accurate version of reality makes my team more likely to win.
In life, it is not about winning per se. However, an accurate version of reality makes you more likely to find success in anything that you do.
The problem is that there is no one objective version of reality. Our version is influenced by our personal opinions, perspectives, past experiences, judgment, etc.
Many things can lead to you having an inaccurate version of reality. One of the biggest problems people run into is assuming that everyone is out to get them.
What is Hanlon’s Razor?
In Philosophy, a razor is a rule of thumb. The purpose of a razor is to help you “shave off” unlikely explanations. Eliminating unlikely explanations enables you to reach an accurate version of reality quicker.
Hanlon's Razor states,
“never attribute to malice that which is adequately explained by stupidity”
Or, as I like to say, don’t pretend to be a mind reader. You don’t know someone's intent, so don’t assume something was done with ill intentions.
Before we get into how Hanlon’s Razor is applied, let’s clear up a couple of common misconceptions.
- This razor is most likely correct, not 100%. It is meant to be a great starting point, that’s all.
- It is not saying that things are never done in malice. There are some mean people in the world, after all.
- Don’t get hung up on the word stupidity. It might be a mistake, incompetence, bad luck, carelessness, or many other things.
Here are four examples where you could either assume malice or apply Hanlon’s Razor.
1. Your boss didn't give you an important update.
Your boss hates you and wants you to fail.
Your boss made an honest mistake due to stress.
2. You didn’t get invited to a party.
She hates you and doesn’t want to be your friend anymore.
The invitation got lost in the mail or your spam folder.
3. A specific political action hurt you personally.
The politician hates you, your race, your gender, or your profession.
The politician is incompetent (like many other politicians).
4. Someone is late for a meeting.
The person is a jerk with no respect for other people's time.
Their baby is sick, so they left the house later than usual.
Most Common Uses
Here are two everyday situations where Hanlon’s Razor will help give you a more accurate version of reality.
1. The media
“Show me the incentive and I will show you the outcome.”
— Charlie Munger
Media companies are businesses. Their incentive is money. An obvious consequence of that is that they show “news” that you will watch.
Since drama gets the most views, the media loves to assume every bad thing is done with ill-intentions. Ill-intentions spark outrage, and outrage increases viewership.
Keep this in mind next time you watch the news. Can the story be explained by something other than malice?
When someone doesn’t like you, they frequently assume the worst. They turn every little mistake you make into something done for hateful reasons.
If you are honest with yourself, you will probably realize you do the same thing. Probably not to the extreme extent. But, when someone you dislike makes a mistake, you are more likely to assume it was done to hurt you or some other negative reason.
There are many benefits to using Hanlon’s Razor in your life. Here are the top four.
1. You are more likely to get to an accurate version of reality.
Having an accurate version of reality is important for a couple of reasons.
- You can't solve a problem unless you fully understand the problem.
Example: An employee is chronically late.
If the reason is that they have no respect for people’s time, fire them immediately.
But, if the problem is something fixable, you should try to fix it first.
2. It is valuable to know your strength and weaknesses.
Example: You miss out on your dream job.
If you missed out on a job simply because someone else had seniority, just wait your turn.
But, if you missed out because of a lack of job skills, start working hard to develop the needed skills.
2. It can help with your relationships.
Every relationship has disagreements. It is important to differentiate between the different causes of disagreements.
If you fight with a friend over something done with malicious intent, you probably need a new friend.
If you fight over a genuine mistake or misunderstanding, you two can work it out.
3. It is a nice thing to do.
It is nice to assume the best in people, even if the other person might not necessarily deserve it.
4. It will make you happier.
Let’s face it; nobody likes feeling like people are out to get them. Feeling like the world is working against you sucks.
If everyone really is out to get you, then unhappiness is probably unavoidable. However, that is very rarely the case. There is usually a much more innocent cause behind negative events.
Mistakes to Avoid
Give people the benefit of the doubt but don’t be naive. If a person has proven themselves untrustworthy, take that into account.
What is the harm of incorrectly Hanlon’s Razor? If the consequences for guessing wrong involve physical danger, throw this rule out. For example, if you are walking back to your hotel in a foreign country and have a bad feeling, don’t risk it. Take a cab.
The biggest criticism of Hanlon’s Razor is that it can make you naive and easy to take advantage of. There is some truth to this, and you should try to minimize this risk as much as possible.
But, at the end of the day, I would rather be a little naive than living in a world where I feel like everyone is out to get me.
An accurate version of reality is important for your productivity and your happiness.
The easiest way to do this is to stop assuming every bad thing that happens was the result of ill-intent. Sometimes it is, but usually, there is a more innocent reason.