How You Can Use "Hanlon’s Razor" to Avoid Petty Arguments

Remember this mental model the next time someone upsets you.

In journalism, if a reporter publishes false information about a person that seriously damages their reputation, they can be sued for libel. But first, you have to prove it was done with malicious intent. In other words, you have to prove that the writer knew the information was false and wrote it anyway. 

“Malicious intent” is a concept that regularly appears in both civil and criminal law. Malice is actually a legal term that refers to someone’s intention to injure another party. As you can imagine, proving it is extremely difficult.

I thought about this the other day after talking with a friend about something completely unrelated. Our conversation centered around how we tend to react — snap back, yell, or stonewall — when a friend or family member makes an off-hand remark that rubs us the wrong way. How you interpret their words affects how you react.

I used to be very reactive, and sometimes, even explosive. If someone made the tiniest of comments that I could interpret as offensive, I would over-think, over-analyze, and ultimately, get upset. The ugliest thing I’d do is stew over it until I could concoct a seemingly casual comment that I knew would hurt the other person’s feelings. It was a weird sort of vindication I think a lot of us do out of habit. A modern-day “eye for an eye” approach.

But here’s the difference. Most of the time, I’d get upset over a comment the other person said jokingly without knowing it would upset me. They didn’t say it on purpose. My retaliatory remarks, on the other hand, were laced with malice. 

It took me way too long to understand the slight, but very important, difference. So now, I always ask myself this question: “Was there malicious intent?” It’s made my life 100 million times easier. Why? Because the majority of the time, the answer is “no.” (This is a game-changer if you have to endure any sort of family gathering, trust me.)

The reality is that most of the time, there’s no malice. It’s just carelessness … which is OK to point out, but it’s not worth getting upset over. 

I know I’m not alone here. Breakdowns in communication can create confusion, hurt feelings, and unnecessary hours spent being angry. There’s a useful heuristic to remember called “Hanlon’s Razor.” It sums it up like this: “Never attribute to malice that which can be adequately explained by neglect or ignorance.” In other words, when someone makes a mistake, it’s possible they’re simply clumsy or careless or inarticulate. 

The German writer Goethe wrote in 1774: “Misunderstandings and neglect create more confusion in this world than trickery and malice. At any rate, the last two are certainly much less frequent.”

A lot has changed since 1774, but misunderstandings and neglect have not. In fact, our emoji-laden, text-based conversations have made it much easier to misjudge someone’s intent. (“Why the hell would you use a period instead of an exclamation point in that text message?”)

Anyway, this is just your weekly reminder that people are nicer than we think, and the world isn’t out to get us. I’ll leave you with the words of the ever-so-wise Shane Parrish

When someone messes up around us, we forget how many times we, too, have done the same. We forget how many times we have elbowed someone in the street, knocked over a drink at a relative’s house or forgotten to meet a friend at the right time.

When a situation causes us to become angry or frustrated, it can be valuable to consider if those emotions are justified. Often, the best way to react to other people causing us problems is by seeking to educate them, not to disdain them. In this way, we can avoid repeats of the same situation.

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