Default to empathy

· 2 minute read

There’s a saying you may have heard called Hanlon’s razor:

“Never attribute to malice what can be explained by stupidity.”

The word “malice” is perfect because it says nothing about the severity of the act. It could describe anything from someone cutting you off in traffic to an accident that blows up the Earth.

On the other hand, I find that “stupidity” only describes a narrow band of human behavior. The saying works just as well if you replace that word. For example:

Never attribute to malice what can be explained by…

  • a rough day at the office
  • a family emergency
  • an ill-fitting pair of pants
  • not having coffee this morning
  • a recent uptick in birds pooping on that person’s car

You get the idea.

Everyone has something on their mind. Something that isn’t going perfectly well in their life. A nagging issue that, however small, may affect your mood on any given day. We’ve all been that person who rudely cuts into traffic because it’s-been-a-long-stressful-day-and-if-we-could-just-be-home-right-now-we-could-finally-relax. And so yes, we will cut into traffic, because today we tell ourselves that we deserve to.

My secret weapon is my alter ego (well, one of my many alter egos, but we’ll get into that another day). I call him benefit-of-the-doubtman.

When someone does something seemingly malicious to me, I try to summon benefit-of-the-doubtman. Sometimes it’s hard to remember because my ego tends to bristle and roar: “Why is this happening to me?”

But benefit-of-the-doubtman comes to the rescue and asks: what are the conditions that caused this person to behave that way? Usually it’s easy to come up with one or two maybes. Maybe they’re worried about losing their job. Maybe they’re upset about something happening in their personal life.

There’s no room to take it personally. Instead of becoming defensive, I try to either disregard the apparent malice or resolve the causes behind it.

I often catch myself marveling at the concept of streets  —  cars whizzing by each other, divided only by a thin strip of paint. Streets say a lot about the power of ego. What makes this crazy system work is that none of us want to die. At least not in a head-on collision. The inherent sense of self-preservation and self-interest that we all share makes society possible, but also causes a lot of what seems like malice.

To solve the root cause of “malice”, it’s helpful to consider whether your environment is effective at converting self-interest into positive impact for the group. Maybe that environment is something you have the power to change?

Whether it’s true or not, I want to believe that most people are good people. I want to live in a world where we can all make that assumption. Call me an optimist, but I think that starts with defaulting to empathy.