Hanlon's Razor: How to Be Less Skeptical Of Others

Many kindhearted people will try to assume the best in others. I think it's awesome, but that is definitely not my personality.

I am not proud of it, but I am kind of a skeptical person. I think a large part of it has to do with my experience growing up in China.

Based on my experience, people living in China are generally more skeptical of others compared to people living in the United States. Who can blame them? There are cases where you have mean old people intentionally try to get bumped by expensive-looking cars, and then harass the driver for money.1

You also have scams where some restaurants would offer a more expensive English menu to non-Chinese speaking tourists, and the items on the English menu would be twice as expensive as the items on the regular Chinese menu.2

I had a couple of similar incidents that happened to me in China which made me a little more skeptical when interacting with other people, especially strangers.

It is not healthy to always be skeptical and questioning people's intentions.

When you are skeptical all the time, your brain will always be thinking of worst-case scenarios. You will always take things personally, and you will always attribute everything to malice.

It can make you a very anxious and angry person.

Hanlon's razor can be a very useful mental model for people with skeptical personalities.

Here is the original quote by Robert J. Hanlon:

"Never attribute to malice that which is adequately explained by stupidity"3

I like Tim Ferriss's version of the quote better:

"Never attribute to malice what you can attribute to incompetence or busyness"4

Hanlon's razor does not tell you to assume the best in other people, but you should at least try to not assume the worst.

It tells you to give people the benefit of the doubt and come up with alternative explanations for their behaviors.

Here are some examples:

  • Your best friend doesn't reply to your message for weeks, maybe he is busy working on his startup or dealing with some personal issues in his life.

  • The cashier talking to you at the grocery store seems kind of mean, maybe she is having a rough week and juggling multiple jobs to pay her college tuition.

  • A car almost crashes into you when you were walking across the street during a green light. That person is probably an incompetent driver.

In the case of your best friend not replying to your message for weeks. If it really bothers you, then you should probably call him up to check if they are okay.

But in cases where the issue is not that important and you don't want to confront the other party, then I find it helpful to give them the benefit of the doubt.

It doesn't mean the alternative explanation you come up with has to be true, but it will make it easier for you to get along with others and vice versa.


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Thanks for reading!

-George 🐙

1

CGTN. (2019, March 1). Old Chinese man fakes injury after intentionally running into parked car [Video]. YouTube. https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=Sg8L9nP_r0g

2

Pang, K. (2021, March 18). 10 Most Hidden Scams in Beijing You Might not Know. China Highlights - Since 1998! https://www.chinahighlights.com/beijing/article-top-10-scams.htm

3

Stafford-Fraser, Q. (2001, November 26). Hanlon’s Razor. Status-Q. https://statusq.org/archives/2001/11/26/

4

Ferriss, T. (2020, January 16). The Tim Ferriss Show Transcripts: How to Cage the Monkey Mind (#175). The Blog of Author Tim Ferriss. https://tim.blog/2018/06/05/the-tim-ferriss-show-transcripts-how-to-cage-the-monkey-mind/