You should embrace Hanlon’s Razor

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

This colorful phrase, called Hanlon’s Razor, explains that people aren’t always out to get us; sometimes they just make mistakes. It’s a practical application of Occam’s Razor which states that, everything else being equal, the simplest solution is usually the best one. Hanlon’s Razor reminds us to have more empathy by giving people the benefit of the doubt.

The saying is attributed to Robert J. Hanlon who created a series of ironic statements inspired by Murphy’s Law to win publication in a book. As Murphy’s Law states, things are constantly going wrong and, when they do, a natural reaction is to blame someone else and assume they did it intentionally. It might even feel as if the world is out to get us.

Don’t assume the worst. The more likely explanation is that it was a mistake. Everyone makes mistakes; every one of us. Usually the best way to react to these situations is to educate someone rather than accuse them.

As an example, YouTube recently came under heavy criticism when it was discovered that videos discussing LGBTQ matters were being filtered out as “potentially sensitive content.” Some believed this was a case of intentional bias and were justifiably alarmed at what seemed like censorship. Over time, it emerged that a wide variety of videos unrelated to LGBTQ issues were also inexplicably being filtered out. Using Hanlon’s Razor, the most likely explanation is that there was a flaw in the algorithm used to identify potentially objectionable content. Someone probably made an unintentional mistake.

I’m an optimistic person by nature and recognize my belief in Hanlon’s Razor can be considered naïve by some. Critics point out that even if people mean well most of the time, sometimes they do have malicious intent. You must be prepared for these rare malicious events.

While I understand their concern, I prefer to remain (mostly) optimistic. As I’ve often cautioned work colleagues, don’t spend too much time worrying about monsters under the bed.

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