Don’t Assume Bad Intentions When There May Be Another Explanation

Annoyed woman

I was recently reminded of the saying “Never attribute to malice that which is adequately explained by stupidity.” This is known as Hanlon’s razor, and it suggests that when someone behaves in a spiteful, unkind, or malevolent way, the driving force may be stupidity and nothing more grandiose.

Of course, stupidity alone can’t account for all malicious-seeming behavior, as acknowledged by an alternate rendering of the aphorism: “Don't assume bad intentions over neglect and misunderstanding.” Still, even neglect and misunderstanding may not account for someone’s behavior, so I propose a more general version: “Don’t assume bad intentions when there may be another explanation.”

For example, you may view a person who shows up late at your meeting as doing so deliberately. But maybe the person arrived late as the result of a medical emergency at home. It’s not bad intentions that detained the person, but neither is it a case of stupidity, neglect, or misunderstanding. Of course, if the person routinely arrives late at meetings, then it’s a different issue and may require attention.

Similarly, the server who barely even grunted as he took your order may not have been driven by bad intentions, neglect, or misunderstanding. He may have been preoccupied due to learning that the restaurant planned to shut down and he’d be out of work.

The possibility of a reasonable explanation for someone’s inappropriate behavior doesn’t mean you have to accept that behavior or silently tolerate it. But it does suggest that in the absence of an explanation, it’s sometimes better to consider the possibility that something else is going on.

The flip side is to be aware that at times, you (or I) may be the ones whose behavior led someone else to attribute malice to us . For example, while walking down a corridor of a company where I once worked, a colleague greeted me. I walked right on past, ignoring him. I learned later that he told someone he thought I was a snob; in his view, I saw him and chose not to acknowledge him. In reality, I was (as is often the case) simply absorbed in thought and oblivious to my surroundings. This doesn’t excuse my inattentiveness, but it does explain it.

It’s natural to jump to conclusions, but perhaps we can get better at considering the possibility of other explanations for behavior that seems inappropriate. Or we can try a slight adjustment to my generalized version of Hanlon’s razor: “Don’t assume bad intentions when there may be another explanation—at least for starters.”

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