Messaging, Hanlon’s Razor, and the 95% Rule

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BLUF – Communication breakdowns are not only common, but expected. Whilst there are many reasons, our internal doubt often attributes these to ill intent of the other party. This post explores two often more accurate considerations of human nature in lieu of malice – Hanlon’s Razor and The 95% Rule.


Getting messages across in threat intelligence space isn’t easy. Bad enough in public sector IC spaces (where we throw it over the wall and hope for the best), worse in private sector (where we have to justify why the business is getting this at all). Determining whether or not an important report was read by the appropriate parties requires active engagement through rapport built over time, as normal reports are often sucked past the event horizon of a feedback void. Many times messages fail to land, sometimes it feels personal.

In cases of bad communication, it can be easy to believe others are seeking to cause you harm. Unless you’ve significant evidence of the individual’s/ individuals’ wrong-doing, there are two basic must-consider principles crucial to understanding human nature. If everything is messaging, further examination using these lenses offers better means of delivery and interpretation to work with.

Hanlon’s Razor: Never attribute to malice what can adequately be explained by stupidity.

In communication it is rare we understand the message – either as sender or receiver. As a sender, we think our audience is of a similar mindset, with similar mental backgrounds or frameworks – or we adjust the message to what we believe they will respond to, how we want their response.

As a receiver, we interpret the message based on our understanding of the sender in relation to us. Past messages, contextual information about the subject or sender, and the currently occupied mental spaces all play a role in how we ingest the message (or lack thereof).

Broken communications do not imply malice. There are simply too many variables in place for communication to be consistently effective – although we often walk away from an engagement with the interpretation it went well, even if not quite as planned. When the engagement doesn’t go well, we often assume the reason was deliberate and potentially malicious. Setting the multitude of personal and environmental near-misses aside, it is less likely the other party has bad intentions, far more likely they are indifferent.*

The 95% rule: The wisdom is: 95% of the people do not care about 95% of the things you’re doing 95% of the time. Bringing the percentage of those who care all the time about the things you do to … 0.0125%. Rather than malice, indifference is the most likely response to messaging – unless the communication is something significant for the receiver. The question becomes how legitimate are the communique’s carrots and sticks.

Perspective of the audience is crucial to a sender finding the .0125% who will care, just as the curious receiver may be looking to find a sender who resonates (although far more senders will care about resonance with receivers who were actively seeking, something the ad industry should be built on). Looking past advertisements to phishing emails and pleas for aid, many messages are sent with either an honest sender’s message (resonating internally and looking for those of similar in-group) or a sender’s best interpretation of how the receivers would receive and respond (manipulating the message to resonate externally, looking to draw in others and perhaps convert).

In many cases the senders misinterpret the care of the audience – either mistaking how the message would be taken by the people they target, or by mistaking who the audience should be. This leads to difficulty in landing the message, giving the impression people are indifferent. In this case, they are. Questions of why this was the audience chosen (unless it’s intended for the general population, which is an entirely different matter) or who represented the target audience when the message was crafted become points of contention for not just the message in question, but future perceptions of the senders in the minds of the audience. This suggests wisdom lies in finding the right voices to resonate with the receivers, even if primarily from a reputation-preservation perspective.

Equally present is the misinterpretation of the sender’s caring about the receiver. In any message received, regardless of the context, the question of ‘what’s in it for the sender?’ weighs heavy. In examining the sender’s intent, the notions of care or ill-intent, either towards or proximate to the receiver, could be mistakenly assumed. The most likely amount of investment the sender holds for the receiver is dependent on the receiver’s response. Consider it as you would a billboard advert, the sender doesn’t care about the thousands if not millions who pass by without response, but rather the few hundred who reach out. Same goes for various forms of correspondence – sussing out why the sender is relaying their message takes personal elements out. They want someone to respond, they are less likely considering whom. Even when the communication is interpersonal, unless it’s part of an ongoing conversation, it still begs the question ‘why?’.

When we find the .0125% the term sweet spot doesn’t begin to cover it.

Business ops (as an example) wants specific, timely intelligence aligning to their controls – essentially telling them to pull a known lever. From a threat intelligence perspective, they are often agnostic, only caring about knowing what to do and when (a marked departure from what intelligence reporting sends). Sure, there will be curious parties wanting to know more, but start giving them the intelligence they want, see the responses change.

When the .0125% comes together, incredible results follow.


*When does malice apply? Unfortunately, there are signs to recognise when there is at least a degree of malice in play.

  • When actions and words are at cross purposes – usually with the words coming to gloss over the intent behind the actions taken. If they knowingly do something harmful and it’s called out, there is a good chance the words used are to make the decision-made/ action-taken appear more palatable to others.
  • When you are kept out of conversations and decisions made regarding you – it could be because they know better, but more likely they don’t want your input into what and how you will be a part of. This takes away the personal investment of responsible parties and diminishes their feeling of value.
  • When there is no follow up or accountability for decisions/ actions taken with detrimental effects to you – Regardless of what is said to their superiors, not acknowledging the break in trust with the person directly affected implies either malice or cowardice.

One thought on “Messaging, Hanlon’s Razor, and the 95% Rule

  1. Pingback: Enemies Required – Maelstrom Advantage

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