Einstein was attributed with modifying Hanlon’s Razor – “Never attribute to malice that which can be adequately explained by stupidity, but don’t rule out malice.” (Wired for War, Singer, 2009)
Malice is the intention to do harm or ill. Stupidity is behavior that shows a lack of good sense or judgment (usually due to ignorance).
Because it’s so easy to judge the idiocy of others, it may be sorely tempting to think this doesn’t apply to you. But the problem of unrecognized ignorance is one that visits us all. (Dunning, 2014)
As we discussed earlier, fear causes me to lose touch with reality as it is and instead act on what I imagine MIGHT be or MIGHT happen. According to Dunning and Kruger, we humans are poor estimators of our own levels of understanding – most likely because we have so many fears – the biggest and scariest of which is probably the fear of the unknown. Since I actually understand so little, there is lots of opportunity to exercise that fear!
Malice presupposes that someone UNDERSTANDS and then CHOOSES to deliberately cause harm. Further, it presupposes that I, too, have that level of understanding.
…the skills you need to produce a right answer are exactly the skills you need to recognize what a right answer is. (Dunning)
Realistically, that is likely a huge underestimation of that person’s and my capabilities. What causes me to attach a negative intention (malice) to the actions of another person when I don’t know their or my intentions? Fear comes to mind as the likely reason.
Because I’m most afraid of the unknown, I tend to find a reason for the behaviors of others that makes sense to me – so I select a reason from my own bucket of (fear-based) reasons when that behavior feels harmful to me. It’s part of my threat awareness program. Although I’d prefer to know for sure, I’m also very much afraid that were I to know something, I’d find it threatening – so I either fight the knowledge (usually through false knowledge) or flee from it (denial – another form of false knowledge). Thus, the surer I am of my false knowledge the safer I feel.
As Josh Billings once put it, “It ain’t what you don’t know that gets you into trouble. It’s what you know for sure that just ain’t so.” I’d add, “but you’re afraid it could be so.”
The intentions of others is the great unknown to me – even when they tell me (people lie sometimes, ya know). My fear of the unknown, then, may be the real reason I apply malice rather than stupidity or ignorance to the hurtful behaviors of others.
Yet, fear itself is an effect of misunderstanding. According to Dunning, from childhood we “naturally and falsely ascribe intentions, functions, and purposes to organisms. For example, when asked why trees produce oxygen, children say they do so to allow animals to breathe.” Classic misattribution based on our fear of the unknown and our need to be right and safe.
- Dunning–Kruger Effect, Wikipedia
- Hanlon’s Razor, Wikipedia
- We Are All Confident Idiots – The trouble with ignorance is that it feels so much like expertise. A leading researcher on the psychology of human wrongness sets us straight. David Dunning, Pacific Standard, Oct 27, 2014. http://www.psmag.com/health-and-behavior/confident-idiots-92793