Hanlon’s Razor: People Aren’t as Hostile as You Think

Hanlon's Razor: People Aren't as Hostile as You Think - Fallacy in Logic

Most people know the feeling: nothing seems to work out your way and you feel like a victim of the events happening around you. As a result, it may be easy to assume that the fault lies in some grandiose conspiracy against you.

In circumstances where everything just appears to go south – at least when it comes to relations with other people – a certain principle, or a mental model, may help you react to things more productively and find calmness of mind.

This mental model is known as Hanlon’s razor, and it states:

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

In this article, we will cover everything you need to know about this philosophical rule of thumb.

What Is Hanlon’s Razor?

As mentioned above, Hanlon’s razor says that “never attribute to malice that which is adequately explained by stupidity or neglect”.

In other words, when someone’s actions can reasonably be explained by neglect or stupidity, we should dismiss the possibility of harmful intentions. As such, its purpose is to help you view the behavior of others in a more rational and useful way.

The reasoning behind it is that we should choose the likely answer – which typically is carelessness rather than malevolence – even if our feelings and prejudices tell us otherwise. Additionally, since no one can perfectly know the intentions of other people, it will often serve you better to accept the positive assumption if there isn’t clear evidence against it.


For example, if everyone else in your class has received an email about some important update except you, you may be quick to assume that the person responsible for sending them out has something against you.

However, since you are on good terms with the person and cannot think of any real reason why they would intentionally exclude only you, you decide to believe that they simply forgot to include you in the email.


The most modern form of Hanlon’s razor is ascribed to Robert J. Hanlon, an American author, who mentioned it in a book called Murphy’s Law, Book Two: More Reasons Why Things Go Wrong by Arthur Bloch.

However, the principle in its various forms has been used by several people in history. For instance, Napoleon Bonaparte, a French military and political leader, is said to have declared that “never attribute to malice that which is adequately explained by incompetence.” Furthermore, a German poet, scientist, and novelist Johann Wolfgang von Goethe wrote in his book The Sorrows of Young Werther (1774) the following:

Misunderstandings and neglect create more confusion in this world than trickery and malice. At any rate, the last two are certainly much less frequent.


Hanlon's Razor: People Aren't as Hostile as You Think - Fallacy in Logic

Namely, there are two important caveats to this principle. First, it does not suggest that people’s actions are never malicious. Rather, as long as it is reasonable to assume that an unpleasant outcome wasn’t due to malevolence, it encourages you to do so.

Second, Hanlon’s razor does not indicate that the outcome – whether due to carelessness or incompetence – is justified because it wasn’t malicious; it only aims to explain why a particular event occurred so that we can choose the next course of action accordingly.  


Hanlon’s razor is a guiding principle that promotes cohesion and can aid in maintaining relationships in a complex world full of wrongs. Its application, whether in day-to-day or professional life, can have multiple benefits, including:

  • It enables you to visualize the world in a more positive light and ignore certain negative assumptions.
  • It allows you to be more rational and less judgemental, and thus approach relationship difficulties with a constructive attitude.
  • It can be useful in combating different biases and prejudices regarding people around you.
  • Like other mental models, it helps you make rapid and efficient decisions.

Other Advantages

Aside from the benefits noted above, it also may work well when combatting various cognitive biases.

Disliking /Hating Tendency

This is a cognitive bias that describes how people tend to view more negatively the things, including virtues, that are associated with people that they dislike. This can also mean that the more one dislikes a person, the more likely he or she is to attribute their actions and words to negative intentions.

As such, Hanlon’s razor comes in handy when dealing with this bias: it can help you react more calmly when someone you aren’t particularly fond of happens to do something that causes inconvenience to you.

Confirmation Bias

Confirmation bias is the tendency to recall and look for information that confirms your existing beliefs. For example, if someone believes that a certain politician is corrupt, he or she will be predisposed to search and accept the knowledge that confirms their belief.

The razor may provide aid in overcoming this bias too, at least when it comes to our notions regarding others: It helps in differentiating which actions are in fact the result of negligence or incompetence, even if we want to believe otherwise.


2 Replies to “Hanlon’s Razor: People Aren’t as Hostile as You Think

  1. Not the helpful tool the article might lead one to believe, because it forces a false dichotomy: you’re either malicious, or stupid. Well, that’s not always the case. What if something didn’t get done because the other person died before its completion? Or what if they just simply forgot?

    1. Hey Dan, and thank you for your comment!

      The important thing with Hanlon’s razor is to know when to apply it; It isn’t, as it states “…that which is adequately explained by…”, a one-size-fits-all principle.

      Also, although its typical version only includes stupidity, I included both stupidity and neglect (such as forgetting) here because I think that they should be treated separately, and neglect is quite possibly as likely an explanation as stupidity.


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