We’re not really sure on the origin of Hanlon’s Razor, but the speculation (via Wikipedia) is Robert Heinlein’s (Heinlein ->Hanlon) story, Logic of Empire, “The character ‘Doc’ in Heinlein’s story described the ‘devil theory’ fallacy, explaining, ‘You have attributed conditions to villainy that simply result from stupidity.'”
I’d remember it more and confuse it less if we stuck with ‘devil theory’ fallacy.
What does stupidity mean though? Most people aren’t dumb, despite our experiences. Most of us error by attribution. And, anyone alive today is the best evolutionary fit! Keep in mind it’s the cream of the crop (for fit) we’re dealing with.
Most of stupidity is wrong-person, wrong-time, wrong-place. In Unnaccaptable, the book about the college admissions scandal, there are a lot of people who broke a lot of laws, most of them stepping from a gray area to a black one.
My daughters (12, 10) aren’t near college applications, but we have been in school for seven years and have helped a lot. We buy supplies, email teachers, advocate to staff, volunteer at the school, attend events, and so on. There’s parental pride, there’s ego, and there’s that unending love parents feel, a willingness to do anything.
Then there’s the chance. Are you willing to do anything?
One minor character from the book is Gordon Caplan, a lawyer who in 2017 did pro bono work to help an Iranian child get admittance to the United States for emergency eye surgery. He told one another interviewer, “I never wanted to do anything that couldn’t be on the front page of the WSJ.”
Yet he crossed from gray to black. From Unacceptable, “I blame no one but myself. I am only angry at myself, I am not even angry at Rick Singer. he was selling something I never should have bought.”
Consider the moment. Consider the step. You’ve helped your kid in the past. You’ve paid for tutors, access, and school. You’ve done the leg work and the research. Then you’re in. You’ve taken the step and everything that got you here gets a further boost. Commitment tendencies kick in. Sunk-costs weight. Status-quo bias lends a hand to head onward and not turn back.
The lesson from Unacceptable is that conditions matter. The heart of Hanlon’s Razor is that conditions matter. This is good.
When Dan Ek spoke with Patrick O’Shaughnessy he clarified the contrast between Spotify and Netflix. ‘No’, Ek explained, Spotify is not just doing what Netflix is doing to avoid wholesale transfer pricing. It’s not that simple. “Unless you understand the system, you can’t just take one of the concepts out of it and expect it to work in your company.”
The master of noting how and when things change is Rory Sutherland and his output is Alchemy. Sutherland’s suggestion is that framing something using words is cheap compared to the potential value increase. Consider work from home. When Rory told his team of fifteen they could work from home nobody did. Why? “Instinctively they saw it as a concession. Every time they took advantage of this they were burning reputational air miles.” They viewed it as an exchange. However, when Sutherland mandated a day the exchange went away.
Unacceptable was a great book about an interesting moment filled with characters who made mistakes and should answer for their actions, but the central lesson is the malleability of people.
Another idea present in Unacceptable was covered in the pay-what-you-want notes about Tyler Cowen. One covered Cowenism is to solve for the equilibrium, a prompt to consider how a situation might play out. The college admission scandal provides a nice example to think that through.