“Never attribute to malice that which is adequately explained by stupidity.”
This concept has been around since the dawn of time, with many astute, wise people noting that more likely than not, people cause harm not because they wish to, but because they are human.
In 1774, Goethe wrote in his novel The Sorrows of Young Werther:
“Misunderstandings and lethargy perhaps produce more wrong in the world than deceit and malice do. At least the latter two are certainly rarer.”
The more popular, simplified saying at the beginning is now called Hanlon’s Razor and it summarises human behaviour concisely and poetically.
Firstly, it emphasises that people (including us) are stupid. We are flawed creatures. Sure, we may have very capable brains, but we are also hamstrung by psychological biases, manipulation, instincts and impulses. We know that we should exercise, but instead we find ourselves binging TV. We know that we should not lash out at our partner, but we find ourselves reacting to our emotions instead of being proactive. More often than not, we make mistakes and poor decisions not because we are bad people, but because we are human.
Secondly, it shows that we judge ourselves by our intentions, but others by their actions. This is known as special pleading. By our very nature, we are egocentric. We think that the world revolves around us and we play an important role in the narrative of those around us. This means that when someone wrongs us, we can take it as a personal attack against us. How dare your coworker give you sass when they must know how burnt out you are from work? How could your spouse not understand your emotional needs right away? Why would the universe do this to us?
But if we take a step back and change our perspective, we might realise that everyone else lives in their own egocentric world. Each person has their own insecurities, hardships and flaws.
The girl who forgot your coffee order may be severely depressed, affecting her concentration. Your boss may have snapped at you this morning because his marriage is in trouble and he is not sleeping well. Your boyfriend may have insulted you not to hurt your feelings, but because they misunderstood you, they phrased something wrong, or just simply that they are not emotionally intelligent.
If you replace “stupidity” with any other imperfect human characteristic such as laziness, stress, distractedness, ignorance or misunderstanding, then the world suddenly appears to be a different place. People seem less evil and life seems a little less unfair.
Lastly, it reminds us that sometimes, things happen for no particular reason. Because people are imperfect and the world runs on chaos and probability, we may be subjected to adversities that appear unjust and unfair.
It’s not because you are worthless or because someone is out to get you: bad things – horrible things – happen without rhyme or reason. The fact that something bad happened is no judgement of your character or a sign from the universe; that’s just life.
Next time you are wronged, try to stop and think before you immediately react with anger and frustration: if you were in the other person’s shoes, what intention or mistake might have caused this? Have you ever done something similar, such as accidentally cutting in line or spilling a secret through human error, not malicious intent? If you assumed the best intention, what might explain this person’s actions?
If you give people the benefit of the doubt, the world becomes a slightly less stressful place to live in.