Hanlon's Razor

By | 2010/07/17

I’m constantly surprised when people haven’t heard of Hanlon’s Razor, so I thought I’d take a few minutes to explain why it’s so important. If you’ve not heard of it before – or hadn’t heard the ‘formal’ name, it goes like this:

Never attribute to malice that which is adequately explained by stupidity.

I was introduced to the concept when I joined my first system administration team in 1996, and I initially struggled with it, though I appreciated the concept right from the start. These days I’d like to consider that it forms the fundamental core of how I work, both from an IT/work perspective, and in day to day life as well. I’m not perfect – I still sometimes screw up and jump the gun, but even when I do, there’s gonna be a little nagging voice in my head whispering the rule and bringing me back.

Some might say that Hanlon’s Razor is an exercise in common sense, but as the old saying goes – common sense isn’t that common. So in a world where people seem to be getting increasingly angry and frustrated, a practical application of this rule could go a long way – with one important change:

Never attribute to malice that which is adequately explained by not knowing any better.

Why is this important? It’s easy to get frustrated over “stupidity” these days, and that’s not really the intent of the rule – it’s meant to be quite the opposite. So that’s why I tone it down.

That means:

  • If you’re a sysadmin and a user doesn’t understand what a home directory is, they’re not trying to give you a bad day.
  • If you’re a call centre worker and a user doesn’t understand why there’s Pacman on the Google home screen, they’re not trying to give you a bad day.
  • If you’re a DBA and a user just accidentally deleted 20,000 rows instead of 2 rows, they’re not trying to give you a bad day.
  • If you’re backup administrator and a user just deleted an important file and need it urgently recovered, they’re not trying to give you a bad day.

So stepping beyond tech, here’s a few examples:

  • If a waiter or waitress asks you 3 times for what your order is, and then still brings the wrong thing, they’re not trying to piss you off, they’re probably just having a bad day themselves.
  • If you got a bill in the mail that has an error on it and you call up the hotline to complain, the person you call likely isn’t directly responsible for your bill, and may need you to carefully explain the problem so that they can help you, not so they can piss you off.
  • If you get a call from a customer who has a billing problem, they’re not trying to give you a bad day.
  • If a shop assistant accidentally rings up a $200 charge instead of a $20 charge, they’re not trying to give you a bad day.

I could just keep giving examples, but that would be tedious. The point is that you can take any situation where you might ordinarily get angry with someone or frustrated with someone, and reconsider it carefully before you “snap”. Think very carefully: are they deliberately trying to piss you off, or are they just making a mistake/having a bad day/not sure of what they’re doing?

In most cases guess what the answer is going to be?

There’s a corollary to Hanlon’s Razor – Occam’s Razor. (Yes, I understand the irony here.) To paraphrase, it’s:

The simplest explanation is usually the best.

What does that mean? If you eliminate stupidity or “just doesn’t know”, and it really does come down to the person acting out of malice, you can feel justified in getting your dander up. But until then, take a deep breath and don’t assume they’re out to annoy you.

Trust me, you’ll be happier for it, and you’ll be better for it.

2 thoughts on “Hanlon's Razor

  1. Stefano

    It’s funny that this post just helped me with the frustration I mentioned on the last post on which I commented. Thank you for this. It made me smile and hopefully I can turn my frustration into the acceptance I seek for my GLBT brothers and sisters… that didn’t sound too frustrated, did it? 😉

  2. preston Post author

    I’m glad this post helped. My partner and I were just talking about Hanlon’s Razor today, and how it’s the “gift that keeps on giving”; we were exposed to it around 14 years ago now ourselves, and every time we find ourselves getting frustrated with something we look for the stupidity/incompetence rather than the malice. It’s very rare that you find malice instead of just a genuine misunderstanding or mistake.

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