You’ve probably heard of Occam’s razor. "Among competing hypotheses, the one with the fewest assumptions should be selected."
But have you heard of Hanlon’s razor? They are similar in that they both shave off unnecessary and unlikely parts of thinking. Hanlon’s razor goes as follows:
"Never attribute to malice that which is adequately explained by stupidity."
I love this. It’s such a powerful and liberating way to look at things. It’s a helpful reminder when confronted with situations where you get hurt. In confrontations. Or basically any interaction that doesn’t go to your liking. There may be malice involved. The other in fact does something with the purpose to hurt you. Very reasonable to get mad in that situation. But maybe we’re reading too much into it. We’re assuming things that were not there. The other one is simply not able to explain, express or do it any better. Maybe the other isn’t even aware that he or she is hurting you.
Are harsh words being used that hurt? Could be that he meant it that way. But could also be that he simply didn’t have the capacity to find better words.
Your boss is not praising you enough? Could be that she doesn’t like you. But could also be that she still has some learning to do in her role.
So stupidity, incompetence or simply not knowing a better way are a few simpler explanations. But we can take it a step further. Maybe the person isn’t stupid and in “normal” circumstances perfectly able to act in a better way. But he or she’s simply too busy; overwhelmed with things going on in his or her life; or simply hasn’t had anything to eat for lunch.
Most of the time, it’s way more likely that the other is just as overwhelmed with life as we are. They want to do a better job but are just not able to do it now. It’s really freeing to not have to get mad at a situation. It saves a lot of energy and frustration.
The boss wants to do right by everyone and does know that praise is important. But she simply doesn’t get to it because she also has a million other tasks to finish before tomorrow.
At a busy intersection, a few thousand bikes cross every few minutes. Accidents are bound to happen. Simply because attention isn’t 100% all the time. You miss one once in a while. That doesn’t mean that the person you crashed into did it on purpose. Nor is he stupid. There’s merely too much going on.
Lastly, there is the collective incompetence that works cumulatively. A few little mistakes quickly disintegrate a normal situation into something bad. Often the effect that nobody wants and that nobody is doing anything in particular to create.
The street looks dirty. There are pieces of paper everywhere. Could be that nobody care and throws all their trash everywhere. Could be. But maybe some people simply weren’t able to correctly place their empty wrapper in their pocket and accidentally dropped it on the ground. That there are now enough on the ground that they’re always in sight does make for a messy street. But doesn’t mean that everyone is walking around with the intention to litter.
A messy kitchen that you share with a few others? A clean kitchen is a very delicate equilibrium. It only takes the first 3 dirty cups in the sink to send the kitchen into a tailspin.
It isn’t necessarily easy to remind myself of it in the moment. As humans, we have a tendency to react strongly to immoral or intentional actions (and thus we react strongly to terrorism but not to global warming). So, when we recognize or see the patterns or a resemblance of these in actions, we jump straight to that conclusion.
But to practice it is a practice in empathy. Can I understand the other’s point of view? Can I understand where the other is coming from? What are his of her needs and emotions?
And it is a practice in mindfulness. Can I allow for a bit more space between my reaction and my response?