Henlon’s Razor: Sound Principle for Processing Interpersonal Interactions

Here is the statement, attributed to Robert J. Henlon:

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

Though the origin is not too clear, there are others who have been credited with similar statements/ quotes. Here are a few of them.

Science Fiction author Robert A. Heinlein in his short story Logic of Empire:

  • “You have attributed conditions to villainy that simply result from stupidity”

Johann Wolfgang von Goethe in The Sorrows of Young Werther:

  • “…misunderstandings and neglect create more confusion in this world than trickery and malice. At any rate, the last two are certainly much less frequent.”

Jane West’s The Loyalists states something similar in a more sincere (less cynical/ insulting) manner:

  • “Let us not attribute to malice and cruelty what may be referred to less criminal motives. Do we not often afflict others undesignedly, and, from mere carelessness, neglect to relieve distress?”

All of the above can be applied to actions, situations, and interactions that cause inconvenience, hurt and pain, for many reasons:

  1. It is possible that there was no malice, deliberate intention, or evil motives for the action/ inaction by the other party. Maybe it truly was carelessness, incompetence, or stupidity.
  2. It is easier to emotionally cope up with consequences of the action/ inaction if you do not think that it was the result of malice (whether or not it is true).
  3. When your action / inaction is inconvenient/ hurtful, it may be preferable (for you) to have others attribute it carelessness, incompetence, or stupidity (though some people may prefer being known as ‘evil’ rather than ‘incompetent’ 🙂 ). If so, it is preferable that everyone uses the same principle.

People often attribute deliberate malafide intent on the powerful (Executive Management, Human Resources) within the organization. The same holds true for the way journalists analyze governments. Most of these powerful people are clueless themselves. It may therefore helpful to remember that:

  • “Cock-up theories”  are more likely to explain man-made problems than conspiracy theories.
    [This also means ‘luck and randomness is more likely to explain success than thought-out strategy’]

You many also want to read Occam’s Razor for Design of Systems and Processes.

Please feel free to share your views, experiences, and queries, using the “comments” feature available.
You may also forward the link to this post to your friends, colleagues, and anyone else who may be interested.


Nothing Official About It! – The views presented above are in no manner reflective of the official views of any organization, community, group, institute, country, government, or association. They may not even be the official views of the author of this post :-).

2 thoughts on “Henlon’s Razor: Sound Principle for Processing Interpersonal Interactions”

  1. I guess human mind is wired (default setting) to attribute “motives” and “malafide intent” to acts that run detrimental to self interests.

    Misunderstandings arising out of communication (things said, not said, manner and context in which things are said and heard…) do contribute to a lot of misgivings in personal and professional relationships. Sometimes it is the “stereotyping” that plays out; as an example, if one’s performance appraisal closure is not done on time and payouts are delayed interminably, one would attribute this to “purposeful, well thought through procrastination as a strategy”.

    But like the X and Y theories, would it be right to say that the attribution, whether to malafide intent or just stupidity, would be based on the frame through which an individual views the world?

    A person who is more disposed towards taking a “I am a victim , everyone else is ganged up against me” view would more likely attribute all unfavorable actions against him/her as being of “malafide intent” than a person who feels more secure and self assured?

    If we all switched to the alternate hypothesis that all unfavorable acts of our fellow beings arise out of stupidity and mere misunderstanding, then there would be no fights, no wars, no grieving ?

    Sounds too utopian.

    But its worth something to mull over and take a fresh stance on as we begin 2014.


    1. Thanks, Prakash.

      “If we all switched to the alternate hypothesis that all unfavorable acts of our fellow beings arise out of stupidity and mere misunderstanding, then there would be no fights, no wars, no grieving?”

      I am not sure, people may be offended that you are ignoring their malafide intent 🙂 !

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