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A Presence of Malice?

You’re watching your favorite team on TV and suddenly the ref makes a terrible call against them. You and your friends comment, “Well, nobody’s perfect. The game moves fast. You can’t get all the calls right. It was an honest mistake.”

Yeah. Sure you do.

It’s more likely that you would erupt with “That’s three bad calls against us! He’s purposely trying to make us lose! The other team is paying him!” And more often than not, you would be wrong.

A Better Shave

There is a useful saying that is credited to writer Robert J. Hanlon, called Hanlon’s Razor: “You should never attribute to malice that which is adequately explained by neglect (or stupidity or incompetence).” While I generally regard aphorisms as too simplistic and over-reaching to be useful, Hanlon’s Razor has merit and is worth a closer look.

By the way, in philosophy, a “razor” is a principle that allows one to eliminate ("shave off") unlikely explanations for a phenomenon, or avoid unnecessary actions.

Why do we do it?

The source of our assumptions of ill will is our primitive instincts and impulses. When something bad happens to us as a result of someone else’s actions and we have uncertainty about their intent, it is safer to assume they are purposefully acting against us than to assume they simply made a mistake. If they really are a threat, we’ll be on our guard and better able to protect ourselves next time. If they were not actually a threat, oh well - we’re still safe anyway.

However, usually these situations are due to someone merely acting in their own best interest without realizing how their actions would negatively affect you. Other times they simply misjudge the consequences. There are many lizard brain tendencies at work here - the desire for certainty, the bias toward negativity, and the allure of the feeling of victimhood. That’s why this invisible mind block is so diabolical and hard to resist.

Media alert!

I rant at times about how media and news outlets foster our assumptions of ill will, but today I will keep the rant brief. It is clear (and NOT an assumption) that they profit from our outrage. We are more likely to click on their article (and generate more ad revenue for them) if the story appears to be about someone intentionally doing harm to us, a group we identify with, or some innocent party. 

Without the attribution of ill-intent, it is not so irresistibly clickable.

So what?

This is important because if we want to be at our best by making better decisions and having stronger relationships, assuming malice by default is a bad deal. It is a form of suspicion, which poisons relationships and creates a cycle of distrust. 

In the early days of my business, when I emailed someone and they didn’t respond I would assume they were being purposefully rude. After all, I always respond to personal emails so I figured everyone else should too. That created a negative attitude which cast a pall over the relationship. Later, I discovered that most of the time they were just busy or forgetful, and if I send a follow-up email they will usually reply and apologize for not replying earlier.

Get acquainted with the little brain

It is as important as ever now to employ my personal mantra, “Confront the lizard.” When we feel wronged or victimized, take a moment to consider whether this truly was an example of someone behaving badly on purpose. Unless there is clear evidence that it was, assume something more innocuous because that is usually the more likely scenario.

Sadly, sometimes people do knowingly act against us with malice, which is another reason we must take the time for deliberate thought. We may well get burned again if we ignore the evidence and do not recognize their evil intent. 

The problem occurs when we react with the lizard brain rather than use our higher level brain to come to a thoughtful verdict. Look at the facts and separate what you can actually perceive from your subconscious assumptions.

Think well and be well.

- Steve.


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