Tag: Napoleon Bonaparte

Hanlon’s Razor: Relax, Not Everything is Out to Get You

Hanlon’s Razor teaches us not to assume the worst intention in the actions of others. Understanding Hanlon’s Razor helps us see the world in a more positive light, stop negative assumptions, and improve relationships. Let’s take a look at some examples.


If you ever feel that the world is against you, you are not alone.

We all have a tendency to assume that when anything goes wrong, the fault lies within some great conspiracy against us. A co-worker fails to give you a report in time? They must be trying to derail your career and beat you to a promotion. Your child drops and breaks an expensive plate? They must be trying to annoy you and waste your time. WiFi in a coffee shop not working? The staff must be lying about having it to lure you in and sample their crappy espresso.

But the simple fact is that these explanations which we tend to jump to are rarely true. Maybe your co-worker thought today was Tuesday, not Wednesday. Maybe your child had sticky hands from playing with play-doh. Maybe the WiFi router was just broken. This is where Hanlon’s razor comes in.

What is Hanlon’s Razor?

Hanlon’s Razor is a useful mental model which can be best summarized as:

‘Never attribute to malice that which can be adequately explained by neglect.’

Like Occam’s razor, this heuristic is a useful tool for rapid decision-making and intelligent cognition.

Applying Hanlon’s razor in our day-to-day lives, allows us to better develop relationships, become less judgmental, and improves rationality. Hanlon’s razor allows us to give people the benefit of the doubt and have more empathy. In this way, the value of Hanlon’s razor is pronounced in relationships and business matters.

It’s a simple fact that most of us spend a large part of our day communicating with others and making choices based on that. We all lead complex lives wherein (as Murphy’s law states) things are constantly going wrong. When this occurs, a common response is to blame the nearest person and assume they have malicious intent. People are quick to accuse corporations, politicians, their bosses, employees, coffee shop workers and even family of trying to derail them. 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. Instead, the perpetrator becomes a source of intense irritation.

To assume intent in such a situation is likely to worsen the problem. None of us can ever know what someone else wanted to happen. The smartest people make a lot of mistakes. Inability or neglect is far more likely to be the cause than malice. 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.

Origins of Hanlon’s Razor

The phrase ‘Hanlon’s razor’ was coined by Robert J. Hanlon, but it has been voiced by many people throughout history, as far back as 1774.

Napoleon Bonaparte famously declared:

‘Never ascribe to malice that which is adequately explained by incompetence.’

Goethe wrote similarly in The Sorrows of Young Werther 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.

The German general Kurt von Hammerstein-Equord used Hanlon’s razor to assess his men, saying:

I divide my officers into four groups. There are clever, diligent, stupid, and lazy officers. Usually two characteristics are combined. Some are clever and diligent – their place is the General Staff. The next lot are stupid and lazy – they make up 90 percent of every army and are suited to routine duties. Anyone who is both clever and lazy is qualified for the highest leadership duties, because he possesses the intellectual clarity and the composure necessary for difficult decisions. One must beware of anyone who is stupid and diligent – he must not be entrusted with any responsibility because he will always cause only mischief.

The Place of Hanlon’s Razor in a Latticework of Knowledge

Hanlon’s razor works best when combined and contrasted with other mental models in our latticework of knowledge. Here are some examples of the useful interactions:

  • The availability heuristic. This mental model states we misjudge the frequency of recent events. In particular, this occurs if they are vivid and memorable. Many people have a tendency to keep an internal scorecard of other people’s mistakes. For example, imagine that a taxi driver takes a wrong turn and makes a journey more expensive. A month later, the same thing occurs with a different driver. We are likely to recall the previous event and react by seeing all taxi drivers as malicious. Instead of accepting both as simple mistakes, the availability of the memory makes us imagine malicious intent. By combining these two mental models, we can understand why certain situations provoke such strong emotions. When a memory is vivid and easy to recall, we may ignore Hanlon’s razor.
  • Confirmation bias. We all have a tendency to look for information which confirms preexisting beliefs. When cognitive dissonance arises, we aim to realign our worldviews. Overcoming confirmation bias is a huge step towards making better choices motivated by logic, not emotions. Hanlon’s razor assists with this. If we expect malicious intent, we are likely to attribute it wherever possible. For example, if someone sees a certain politician as corrupt, they will look for information which confirms that. They become unable to identify when mistakes are the result of incompetence or accident.
  • Bias from disliking/hating. Hanlon’s razor can provide insights when we deal with people, institutions, or entities which we dislike. The more we dislike someone or something, the more likely we are to attribute their actions to malice. When someone we dislike makes a mistake, reacting with empathy and understanding tends to be the last response. Acting in an emotional way is natural, yet immature. It can only worsen the situation. The smartest solution is, no matter how much we dislike someone, to assume neglect or incompetence.
  • We also like to attribute our own flaws and failures to someone else, which is a cheap psychological protective mechanism called projection. This allows us to maintain a positive self-image and view friction as someone else’s fault rather than our own. It’s best to run a reality check before blaming others.

Hanlon's Razor Mental Model

The Uses of Hanlon’s Razor

The Media

Modern media treats outrage as a profitable commodity. This often takes the form of articles which attribute malice to that which could be explained by incompetence or ignorance. We see examples of this play out in the media multiple times a day. People rush to take offense at anything which contradicts their worldview or which they imagine to do so. Media outlets are becoming increasingly skilled at generating assumptions of malicious intent. When looking at newspapers, websites, and social media, it can be beneficial to apply Hanlon’s razor to what we see.

For example, when Apple’s Siri voice search launched, people noticed that it could not search for abortion clinics. This was immediately taken up as proof of misogyny within the company when in fact, a programming error caused the problem.

A similar issue has occurred a number of times with YouTube content policies. When videos discussing LGBTQ matters were filtered on the restrictive viewing mode, many people took extreme offense at this. The reality is that again, this was an algorithm error and not a case of homophobia on the part of their programmers. Countless videos which do not discuss anything related to LGBTQ issues have also been filtered. This shows it to be a case of confirmation bias, wherein people see the malice they expect to see.

Communication and Relationships

One of the most valuable uses of Hanlon’s razor is in relationships and communication. It is common for people to damage relationships by believing other people are intentionally trying to cause problems for them, or behaving in a way intended to be annoying. In most cases, these situations are the result of inability or accidental mistakes.

Douglas Hubbard expanded upon the idea in Failure of Risk Management: Why it’s Broken and How to Fix it:

I would add a clumsier but more accurate corollary to this: ‘Never attribute to malice or stupidity that which can be explained by moderately rational individuals following incentives in a complex system of interactions.’ People behaving with no central coordination and acting in their own best interest can still create results that appear to some to be clear proof of conspiracy or a plague of ignorance.

A further example can be seen when semantic barriers interfere with communication. We have all encountered people struggling to speak our native language, perhaps because they are a tourist or have recently moved to the county. You have probably seen someone gets frustrated at them or even been the one getting annoyed. Or if you have ever traveled to or lived in a country where you are not fluent in the language, you might have been the one people got annoyed at. Realistically, the person asking you for directions or struggling to order their coffee is not mixing up their nouns and speaking in a strong accent on purpose.

Hanlon’s razor tells us they are merely inarticulate and are not trying to waste anyone’s time. The same issues occur when a person uses language which is considered too complex or too basic. This may form a semantic barrier, as other people assume they are trying to confuse them or are being blunt.

A short-cut to regulating what can be strong reactions to inadvertent events is to conscientiously reframe the perpetrator as a toddler knocking over a vase. Their actions are rendered unintentional and clumsy, highlighting their need for help, maturation or supervision, allowing you to rapidly regain composure and not take it personally.

Exceptions and Issues

Like any mental model, Hanlon’s razor has its limitations and its validity has been contested. Some critics consider Hanlon’s razor to be an overly naive idea which can blind people to true malice. While people have malicious intent far less often than we think, it is still something which must be taken into account. Sometimes actions which could be attributed to incompetence are in fact consciously or unconsciously malicious.

An instance of Hanlon’s razor being proven wrong is the mafia. Prior to the 1960s, the existence of the mafia was considered to be a conspiracy theory. Only when a member contacted law enforcement, did police realize that the malice being perpetrated was carefully orchestrated.

To make the best use of Hanlon’s razor, we must be sure to put it in context, taking into account logic, experience, and empirical evidence. Make it a part of your latticework of mental models, but do not be blind to behavior which is intended to be harmful.

Napoleon’s Fatal Mistake

“Nothing is more powerful than an idea whose time has come.” — Victor Hugo

France of the 1790s provided an ideal place for Napoleon Bonaparte’s unlikely rise to the top. Paul Johnson explains in Napoleon: A Life:

It demonstrated the classic parabola of revolution: a constitutional beginning; reformist moderation quickening into ever-increasing extremism; a descent into violence; a period of sheer terror, ended by a violent reaction; a time of confusion, cross-currents, and chaos, marked by growing exhaustion and disgust with change; and eventually an overwhelming demand for “a Man on horseback” to restore order, regularity, and prosperity.

Napoleon epitomized opportunism.

Bonaparte believed not in revolution but in change; perhaps accelerated evolution is the exact term. He wanted things to work better, or more fairly, and also faster. In England he would have been a utilitarian; in the United States, a federalist and a follower of Alexander Hamilton …

For better or worse, he was a product of the revolution.

The program could not have been successfully carried out without Bonaparte—that is certain. But equally certain is that Bonaparte would not have possessed the ruthless disregard of human life, of natural and man-made law, of custom and good faith needed to carry it through without the positive example and teaching of the Revolution. The Revolution was a lesson in the power of evil to replace idealism, and Bonaparte was its ideal pupil.

In this awesome transformation, Bonaparte was the Demogorgon, the infernal executive, superbly molded by nature and trained by his own ambitions and experiences to take the fullest advantage of the power the Revolution had created and bequeathed to him.

In his first invasion of Italy in 1796, an “imaginative and symbolic” success he set the tone for his relationship with his troops:

Soldiers, you are naked, ill-fed. … But rich provinces and great towns will soon be in your power, and in them you will find honor, glory, and wealth. Soldiers of Italy! Will you be wanting in courage and steadfastness [to obtain these things.]

His implicit contract with his troops: win the war and take the loot. One small and powerful gesture that might be looked over is that Bonaparte made it easy for their spoils to be transferred back to their families.

This made military sense, for it enabled soldiers to save instead of squandering their trophies on drunken debauchery.

Part of Napoleon’s success resulted from the difference between him and his enemies. The Duke of Wellington, who would ultimately be victorious at Waterloo, pinpointed Bonaparte’s advantage.

I can hardly conceive of anything greater than Napoleon at the head of an army—especially a French army. Then he had one prodigious advantage—he had no responsibility—he could do what he pleased; and no man ever lost more armies than he did. Now with me the loss of every man told. I could not risk so much. I knew that if I ever lost 500 men without the clearest necessity, I should be brought one my knees to the bard of the House of Commons.

Before Bonaparte, Wellington had only seen delegated power in the field. Now he was facing direct power. For example, he appointed his own subordinates, whereas Wellington often had generals foisted upon him.

This reminds me of Malcolm Gladwell’s new book, David and Goliath, in terms of how the weak win wars. Often they don’t appear to play by what we consider the established rules. When underdogs choose not to play by Goliath’s rules, Arreguín-Toft concludes in his book How the Weak Win Wars, they win, “even when everything we think we know about power says they shouldn’t.”

Napoleon enjoyed the freedom to take risks that his adversaries wouldn’t or couldn’t for political or other reasons. These risks fit perfectly with “his general strategy of swift aggression and offensive battle seeking.”

The soldiers liked this high-risk approach. In their calculations, they were as likely to be killed by a defensive and cautious commander as by an attacking one, and with little chance of loot to balance the risk.

Ultimately Bonaparte’s most useful weapon was fear.

It was this one he employed most frequently. In his aggressive strategy, it gave him a head start-it was as though an invisible army had softened up the enemy’s defenses before a French shot was fired.

When fighting campaigns, Bonaparte, with few exceptions, was usually vastly outnumbered. Often the other side was a coalition of nations.

His strategy therefore was not only to strike quickly but to strike between his opponents’ forces, before they could join together. He went for each in turn, hoping he would have numerical superiority and defeat them separately. The Allied armies thus rarely had the confidence of numbers, and even when they had, Bonaparte’s notorious ability to bring up reinforcements quickly and surprisingly tended to undermine it.

Napoleon also showed a great understanding by aligning his instructions with his strategy.

No matter how well drilled and disciplined, a unit was likely to lose formation if ordered to carry out complicated movements over distances. Hence, the simpler the plan the better, and the simplest plan as: attack!

Generals, for their part, preferred simple plans. Often these instructions had to be carried by hand to the front line, and innumerable things could go wrong.

Bonaparte’s most brilliant victory, at Austerlitz on 2 December 1805, can be summed up for three reasons:

First, he had complete unity of command. The senior Allied commander, M.I. Kutuzov, had in practice no chance to adopt and carry out a unified tactical plan, and authority was hopelessly divided between sovereigns and individual commanders, some of whom acted on their own initiative. Second, in the poor conditions, orders were frequently miscarried or were misunderstood or disobeyed. … Third, French united operated more efficiently. Their cavalry, and the artillery were persistently resourceful: informed that the Russians were trying to escape over frozen ponds, they quickly prepared red-hot shots and fired them into the ice, breaking it, and causing 2,000 Russians to be drowned.”

I found this bit particularly enlightening. Organizations, large and small, would do well to listen to the lesson embedded within this passage.

What few possessed—and therein lay their weakness—was independence of mind. They were, almost without exception, subordinates. Under the command of a decisive military genius like Bonaparte, they could perform prodigies. They rushed to obey his orders, to please him, to earn his praise and rewards. Sometimes, given an independent command, they acted well, especially if his orders were explicit and the task reasonably simple. But on their own, they tended to be nervous, looking over their shoulders, unresourceful in facing new problems he had not taught them how to solve. This exasperated the emperor, especially in Spain, where they all failed.”

But it was his own fault.

He did not like to delegate, and therefore the men he promoted under his command tended to be those who carried out his orders with precision, rather than men with their own minds. The weakness was central to the failure of the empire, for Bonaparte used his marshals and generals not only to command distant armies, which he could not supervise in detail, but to govern provinces and kingdoms, run embassies, put down rebellions, and deal with all of the crises that, from time to time, swept across territories of nearly eighty million souls.

If you’re hiring men and women who, while they can carry out instructions lack a general ability to think, what makes you think your results will be different?

In Napoleon: A Life is “the magisterial historian Paul Johnson offers a vivid look at the life of the strategist, general, and dictator who conquered much of Europe.”