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Cutting through confusion: how to apply Hanlon's razor

By Sam Instone - February 09, 2023

Do ever feel the world is against you?

You’re not alone.

You might just benefit from the principle of Hanlon’s razor.

The phrase ‘Hanlon’s razor’ was coined by Robert J. Hanlon, but it has been voiced by many people throughout history, as far back as the 1700s.

Napoleon Bonaparte famously declared:

"Never ascribe to malice that which is adequately explained by incompetence."

And this is Hanlon's razor.

In other words, it’s better to assume someone's actions are the result of ignorance or lack of understanding, rather than intentional cruelty.

It’s often used as a reminder to consider all possible explanations before jumping to conclusions about someone's motives.

Understanding this fascinating mental model helps us see the world in a more positive light, stop negative assumptions, and improve relationships.

A few examples

We’re all guilty of assuming when anything goes wrong, it's down to some great conspiracy against us.

A co-worker misses a report deadline…

They must be trying to derail your career.

Your child breaks an expensive plate….

They must be trying to annoy you.

The conclusions we jump to are, of course, rarely true.

Maybe your co-worker got the day wrong.

Maybe your child had sticky hands from playing with crafts.

Practice applying Hanlon's razor in examples like these. 

Like Occam’s razor, it’s useful for intelligent, more rational thought.

It allows us to give people the benefit of the doubt and have more empathy.

Because of this, it’s perhaps more valuable when used in relationships and business.

Most of us spend a large part of our day communicating with others and making choices.

We lead complex lives.

When things go wrong, a common response is to blame the nearest person and assume they’re ‘out to get you’.

When someone messes up, we forget how many times we’ve done the same.

(Listen to my podcast here on my own failures).

Instead, we just get irritated.

The smartest people make a lot of mistakes.

Often, the best way to react is by education, not anger.

In this way, we can avoid repeats of the same situation.

How to use Hanlon’s razor

Hanlon’s razor works best when combined and contrasted with other mental models.

Here’s one example from my world…

I work with many highly intelligent, wealthy professionals who want their families to thrive but who’ve previously had dreadful experiences when it comes to putting in place the right financial structures.

They suffer from confirmation bias

This states we all tend to look for information that confirms pre-existing beliefs.


All finance people vend products that aren't in the best interests of clients.

We reject the idea or belief that a financial professional should be a fiduciary and always act in our best interest because it doesn't fit with our prior experience.

Overcoming confirmation bias is a huge step towards making better choices motivated by logic, not emotions.

Hanlon’s razor assists with this.

If we expect malicious intent, we’re likely to attribute it wherever possible.

So, for someone who believes all financial or investment professionals are snake oil salespeople, they will look for information which confirms that.

Perhaps making them unable to see that previous mistakes were the result of an accident, or even incompetence (on their, or someone else's, part).

Communication and relationships

This is when Hanlon’s razor is most valuable.

Because too often, people damage relationships and lose opportunities by believing other people are intentionally trying to cause problems for them.

In most cases, these situations are the result of inability or accidental mistakes.

Douglas Hubbard, in Failure of Risk Management: Why it’s Broken and How to Fix it, says:

I would add a clumsier but more accurate corollary to this: ‘Never attribute to malice or stupidity that which can be explained by moderately rational individuals following incentives in a complex system of interactions.’ People behaving with no central coordination and acting in their own best interest can still create results that appear to some to be clear proof of conspiracy or a plague of ignorance.

Here's a top tip.

Next time you feel the need to react strongly to something that’s happened, try imagining the person as a toddler knocking over a vase.

You see their actions as unintentional and clumsy.

You see their need for help, maturation, or supervision.

You quickly regain composure and don’t take it personally.

Add Hanlon’s razor to the other mental model’s and you are beginning to build up a powerful knowledge base to aid with decision-making.

Of course, like any mental model, it’s not perfect.

You must put it in context, taking into account logic, experience, and empirical evidence.

Make it a part of your latticework of mental models, but do not be blind to behaviour which is intended to be harmful.

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