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Thinking about thinking: Attribution Bias and Hanlon’s Razor


The second in a series of articles where Whitianga resident, Max Ross, is exploring the way we think.

Thinking about thinking is called metacognition. Philosophers, economists, scientists and others have investigated how we think and how we make logical mistakes. Understanding thinking allows you to understand the actions of others and helps you to improve your own thinking. In this week’s article, I will investigate our biases in thinking about the actions of others.


Attribution Bias

A cognitive bias is a way of thinking that is not logical, but that is common. An attribution bias is a bias that humans have when making judgements about why people behave in certain ways. We instinctively think about the actions of others as being due to their personality traits, while we think about our actions as being the result of circumstance. For example, if someone is late, we think that they are not good at time management. However, if we are late, we justify it as being because the phone rang as we were leaving the house or we couldn’t find the car keys.

I acknowledge this bias by trying to think of the worst possible situation that resulted in the behaviour I am seeing. When someone doesn’t indicate at one of our roundabouts, rather than falling for this bias and thinking “that person is a terrible driver and doesn’t know how to indicate”, I try to make up the worst possible situation that justifies the behaviour. “That person has forgotten if they left the oven on and is rushing home to check if their house has burnt down,” or “That person has just discovered that their dog has only days to live.” It’s probably not true, but it does help to reframe the behaviour and help me to overcome my attribution bias and be kinder.


Hanlon’s Razor

A philosophical razor is a rule of thumb that helps us to think about things in a useful way. The razor allows us to shave off possibilities or ways of thinking that are not useful.

A razor that really helps in dealing with some situations is Hanlon’s Razor which states, “Never attribute to malice that which can adequately be explained by stupidity.” It is a razor that was submitted to a book containing jokes about Murphy’s Law by Robert Hanlon.

As with all of these ideas, something similar has been expressed in the past. The concept is not new. Jane West, in her 1812 novel, “The Loyalists: An Historical Novel” wrote, “Let us not attribute to malice and cruelty what may be referred to less criminal motives.”

When you are feeling wronged or people don’t act in the manner in which you feel they really ought to, maybe they are not deliberately acting against you. It’s easy to jump to the conclusion that “they are out to get me” and so it helps to stop and think, “Maybe they just don’t know any better.”

It’s not always about you.

The difference between a razor and a law is that a law is considered always true, whereas a razor does not guarantee that it is correct. It is just the more likely of the two outcomes. While unlikely, it may be that “they really are out to get you”.


Pictured is Max Ross.



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