Here is the statement, attributed to Robert J. Henlon:
"Never attribute to malice that which is adequately explained by stupidity".
Though the origin is not too clear, there are others who have been credited with similar statements/ quotes. Here are a few of them.
Science Fiction author Robert A. Heinlein in his short story Logic of Empire:
- “You have attributed conditions to villainy that simply result from stupidity”
Johann Wolfgang von Goethe in The Sorrows of Young Werther:
- “…misunderstandings and neglect create more confusion in this world than trickery and malice. At any rate, the last two are certainly much less frequent.”
Jane West’s The Loyalists states something similar in a more sincere (less cynical/ insulting) manner:
- “Let us not attribute to malice and cruelty what may be referred to less criminal motives. Do we not often afflict others undesignedly, and, from mere carelessness, neglect to relieve distress?”
All of the above can be applied to actions, situations, and interactions that cause inconvenience, hurt and pain, for many reasons:
- It is possible that there was no malice, deliberate intention, or evil motives for the action/ inaction by the other party. Maybe it truly was carelessness, incompetence, or stupidity.
- It is easier to emotionally cope up with consequences of the action/ inaction if you do not think that it was the result of malice (whether or not it is true).
- When your action / inaction is inconvenient/ hurtful, it may be preferable (for you) to have others attribute it carelessness, incompetence, or stupidity (though some people may prefer being known as ‘evil’ rather than ‘incompetent’ 🙂 ). If so, it is preferable that everyone uses the same principle.
People often attribute deliberate malafide intent on the powerful (Executive Management, Human Resources) within the organization. The same holds true for the way journalists analyze governments. Most of these powerful people are clueless themselves. It may therefore helpful to remember that:
- “Cock-up theories” are more likely to explain man-made problems than conspiracy theories.
[This also means ‘luck and randomness is more likely to explain success than thought-out strategy’]
Please feel free to share your views, experiences, and queries, using the “comments” feature.