Hanlon’s Razor: It’s Probably Not About Us

by | Oct 31, 2019


In philosophical terms a razor is a guiding principle or a mental model that allows us to “shave off” unlikely explanations for things. A great philosophical razor is Hanlon’s Razor:

Hanlon’s Razor:Never attribute to malice that which can be adequately explained by stupidity.

The word “stupidity” can be switched out for “sloth, laziness, misunderstanding, forgetfulness, disorganization, carelessness” etc.

This is an important mental model that can save us a lot of wasted negative emotion. When someone doesn’t return an email or text, shows up late or even misses a meeting it is best to assume that they merely messed up and didn’t mean to slight us. When someone cuts us off in traffic, they probably aren’t intending to send us a personal message but rather just made a driving mistake or misjudged.

A key point when applying Hanlon’s Razor is that it doesn’t mean that not returning emails or showing up late is okay. It’s not. Rather, Hanlon’s Razor can allow us to not take it personally by not attributing malice. We each have an egocentric bias where we tend to view actions and events as if they were about us. Usually they are not. Other people’s actions are usually “about them” and such actions usually not directed at us. Realizing this can save us mental anguish and can be quite freeing.

Applying Hanlon’s Razor inherently means stepping a bit away from our own egos and our own center of the universe and realizing that its probably not about us. Other people going through their own lives make mistakes, are disorganized, careless and lazy – just like we are. Hanlon’s Razor means that we should view actions or inactions of others with charity. For a fantastic commentary on adopting this sort of point of view check out one of the all-time great commencement speeches:  David Foster Wallace – This is Water

Of course, sometimes people do act with malice and do intend a slight. Thus, Hanlon’s Razor is not a universal rule, rather it is a default approach based on probability.

A related concept that was the topic of a prior IFOD is the Fundamental Attribution Error which states that we tend to (a) view other’s actions as a reflection of their personality or who they are as people, but (b) our own actions are a result of our circumstances. Shifting and viewing other’s actions as a result of their circumstances is often a more accurate view of the world.


  1. happy halloween! This is just what I needed today to turn around some negative thinking… thanks!

  2. Thank you for bringing my attention to David Foster Wallace’s commencement speech


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