Hanlon’s Razor: there’s a friend in every stranger

You read something interesting by a social media influencer. You comment with a fresh perspective. You catch the attention of the poster and exchange email ids with the promise of a further discussion. A few days later you email the influencer suggesting a catch-up.

A week passes. No response.

You send a reminder. Another week. Still nothing. You assume it’s just lip service on the part of the influencer. You complain to a friend about your experience and come to a common conclusion that social power corrupts.

Finally you hear back. The influencer had had a family health emergency that had her out of action for a period. She’s apologetic. You are sheepish.

What is Hanlon’s razor?

Razors are a group of principles meant to shave off complicated explanations for simple phenomena. These principles share a purpose: eliminate unproductive ways of thinking. In this article, we look at Hanlon’s razor, named most likely after Robert Hanlon who submitted it to a joke book:

Never attribute to malice that which can be adequately explained by stupidity.

When unfavorable things happen to us, we tend to suspect and act as if the event was a sin of commission — someone choosing to do it to us. This model reminds us to consider the alternative explanation that our adversity could more likely have been the result of a sin of omission — someone forgetting to do something for us — or simply a mistake. When dealing with negative outcomes our moral code is designed to punish intentionality much more than accident (murder much worse than manslaughter), hence the question of what caused something untoward assumes importance.

Hanlon’s razor does not mean that malice is never behind an untoward situation. It is simply a rule of thumb that reminds us that carelessness, stupidity, incompetence, and lack of information are more commonly behind negative outcomes than is malice. The principle nudges us to be curious about a wider set of possibilities instead of assuming that the world is out to get us. This in turn allows us to relax and be more open to discovering the truth.

Why do we need to be reminded of this principle?

There are several ways to see, even justify, our reading of others’ malicious intent as the default probable cause of our suffering: we may have been previously wronged, it was about a matter very important to us, all visible evidence pointed to it. However it is borne out, the heart of it is what David Foster Wallace alludes to in his 2005 commencement speech to the graduating class at Kenyon College:

Everything in my own immediate experience supports my deep belief that I am the absolute centre of the universe; the realest, most vivid and important person in existence…. It’s a matter of my choosing to do the work of somehow altering or getting free of my natural, hard-wired default setting which is to be deeply and literally self-centered and to see and interpret everything through this lens of self.

We tell ourselves that our sense of self is too precious to have been dented by anything other than malicious forethought. We overestimate the influence of intentionality and underestimate the power of neglect (mistakes, laziness, or ignorance) in causing us grievance. So we read a signal error — a forgotten acknowledgement, a missed communication, an ill-timed remark — as an act of hostility.

David Wallace goes on to say that those who can alter their default setting of the self are the ones who are “well-adjusted,” suggesting that the use of Hanlon’s razor is to help change our internal setting from ill-adjusted to well-adjusted. It is hard to belabor this point when we pause to consider just how much misery mistrust brings us.

What’s the price of mistrust?

Believing that someone is acting out of malice toward us can cause us to close down all communication with them. We emerge from the experience with an inaccurate conclusion that urges us not just to cut off any future collaboration with the person but also, more generally, to set up a pre-emptive system of verification that helps avert future loss.

Consider how a trust-based payment model works. A third-party payment system confirms our authenticity with the issuing bank and upon receiving an all clear processes the payment. This happens for every transaction, no matter the value. Now imagine before every social interaction, however casual or commonplace, having to furnish some form of a character certificate with a third party as a precondition. Imagine having a chaperone tag along on every date. This high price of admission would nip all courtships in the bud.

Another way to weigh the consequences of mistrust is to look at what trust allows us. How often have you chosen to do something nice because in the past you were the recipient of an unexpected act of kindness? This is the notion of generalized reciprocity that was a social norm in the community I grew up in. It was common for parents to have neighbors sit their kids, for people to leave the front door unlocked, or for considerable favors to be asked of fellow community members. People did good things for others knowing that at some future time they would be the recipient of someone’s goodness.

Absence of trust imposes a high social processing fee to the extent that few relationships may seem worthwhile. This is not to mention the higher cost of living with mistrust: the cost of home security systems and ammunition. The point is plain: mistrust comes at the cost of community. Think of immigrants in foreign lands. Once we presume the absence of deception in someone’s actions, we can free our minds to genuinely understand the circumstances behind an unfavorable outcome. This reduces our confirmation bias and makes us truly interested in the lives of those we come into contact with.

How can we use this mental model?

Hanlon’s razor as a maxim is simple enough to understand. It merely suggests that we replace our default reaction to bad news with healthy curiosity. However, following it requires discipline as it goes against the grain for many of us. Nonetheless, being able to consistently adopt a policy of implicit trust requires us to focus on a few specific things.

Go positive, go first

Giving others the benefit of the doubt in difficult situations encourages them to reciprocate. On the flip side, someone with a bad reputation is perceived to have cheated more than they have co-operated over a period of time, so much so that any hope they may have of being seen favorably by others requires them to construct a new perception among others. This is hard as such actors are less likely to be the recipient of altruistic behavior from others, which in turn convinces them to continue to cheat. The best way to break this negative cycle is to build a positive one from the start.

Do self-check-ins to manage biases

In readily doubting people’s intentions when things don’t go our way, we tend to look for evidence that confirms our preconceived beliefs (confirmation bias) or we only consider information that comes most readily to mind (availability bias) or we over-attribute the outcome to personality factors vis-a-vis situational when it comes to judging others (correspondence bias). Doing a check-in against these biases at work and in daily life helps fix any skew in our perspective.

Start with trust, update as needed

Starting with the theory that people are more likely to be supportive than combative places trust as a core value. From this point on as we trade favors we could update our perception of someone. For example, as Adam Grant suggests, “If you’re a giver, don’t be a giver with takers.” We could be generally watchful by checking the individual’s track record, weighing the consequences of being uncooperative, or even deciding that transactions with certain people are off-limits. It is inevitable that sometimes we’re going to burn our fingers, as it is possible that we’ll end up being transactional in some interactions, so coming to terms with both outcomes is helpful to avoid regret and confusion.

Conclusion

Life is full of corners that none of us have the power to see around. We could assume the worst when thinking about what’s around the bend, or we could be curiously trusting. The choice may not always be easy but it is ours to make. Hanlon’s razor nudges us to consider the path of implicit trust and believe that there’s a friend in every stranger, not vice versa.

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