Hanlon's Razor

By Reese Ramos, Director & University Ombuds at Virginia Tech

Spring is upon us and the increasing temperature reminds me of a story about a little girl, her desire for ice-cream and a server.

One day a young girl of about 6 walked into an ice cream shop and sat at a table. “How much is an ice cream sundae?” she asked. “Five dollars,” replied the server curtly. “What’s on it?” the little girl asked. “Two scoops of vanilla ice cream, caramel syrup, nuts and a cherry on top,” the server answered quickly. The little girl’s eye got big in excitement and slowly pulled the coins out of her pocket and began counting. “Uh, how much is it just for the ice cream?” she asked, seemingly disappointed. By now the server was growing impatient because she had real customers to attend to. Customers with actual and more money to spend. Customers that knew what they wanted and weren’t going to waste her time.

“Four dollars!” she brusquely replied. The little girl counted her coins again (while the server nodded her head in disbelief that the little girl needed to count her coins yet again) and then said, “I’ll have just the ice cream please.” The server left, came back with the ice cream and abruptly put the bill on the table. She walked away rolling her eyes at how long this transaction had taken place. 

A few minutes later the server, out of the corner of her eye, saw the little girl get up, pay her bill and leave. The server, expecting the little girl to have left a mess, returned to wipe the table and then began tearing up because there, on the extremely clean table, sat the empty dish, and beside the dish were four quarters. The little girl, despite her desire for an ice cream sundae had an even bigger desire; she wanted to have enough money to tip the server, and so chose just the ice cream instead of the sundae.

We humans are quick to judge a person or situation and jump to conclusions, often forgetting to ask what motivates others and why they do what they do (or say what they say). In other words, we fail to explore what the intent of others truly is. There’s a saying about how we judge others by their behavior though we sometimes judge ourselves by our intent.

I’m not saying behavior doesn’t matter and all that matters is intent. Simply, that the intent of others is worth exploring because then we can perhaps understand the reason they are doing what they are doing.

Here at VOICE, people often reach out for guidance because they are immersed in a situation that is frustrating. Perhaps the person is dealing with a colleague (or manager) that they believe is “setting them up to fail.” Because the person has already concluded the motivation behind the other person’s actions everything else their colleague does is shrouded in a cloak of suspicion. A study years ago out of the University of British Columbia - Sauder School of Business indicates that paranoia in the workplace about negative gossip leads people to seek out information validating their fears. This pursuit, in turn, can annoy colleagues and actually increase the chances the person might end up being rejected or subverted! In other words, it’s a self-fulfilling prophecy.

Sometimes (not always, but sometimes) the reality is quite the opposite. It may be that someone has simply spoken or acted from a place of just not knowing any better. There’s an adage sometimes referred to as Hanlon’s Razor that reminds us about this reality by stating “Never attribute to malice that which is adequately explained by unawareness.”

Now, this doesn’t mean someone’s intent may not be a mal-intended one, simply that we should check our assumptions because we may initially be wrong. If anything, checking our assumptions about something or someone will either validate what we belief or prevent us from experiencing what the server in the story probably experienced.