Are You a Hedgehog or a Fox?
Last week I discussed Philip Tetlock’s work that revealed the utter meaninglessness of punditry in The Illusion of Punditry. It is important to note that although professional pundits, on average, were less accurate than random chance, a few outliers actually performed well above average. Tetlock closely examined the variables associated with the distribution of accuracy scores and discovered that experts were often blinded by their preconceptions, essentially lead astray by how they think. To elucidate his point, Tetlock employed Isaiah Berlin’s famous metaphor, The Hedgehog and the Fox. Berlin, a historian, drew inspiration for the title of this essay from a classical Greek poet Archilochus, who wrote: “The fox knows many things, but the hedgehog knows one big thing.”
Berlin contended that there are two types of thinkers, hedgehogs and foxes. To make sense of this metaphor, one has to understand a bit about these creatures. A hedgehog is a small spiny mammal that when attacked rolls into a ball with its spines protruding outward. This response is its sole defensive maneuver, its “one big thing,” employed under any indication of threat. And by extension he suggested that hedgehog thinkers “… relate everything to a single central vision, one system less or more coherent or articulate, in terms of which they understand, think and feel—a single, universal, organizing principle in terms of which alone all that they are and say has significance…” The cunning fox survives by adapting from moment to moment by being flexible and employing survival strategies that make sense in the current situation. They “pursue many ends, often unrelated and even contradictory, … their thought is scattered or diffused, moving on many levels, seizing upon the essence of a vast variety of experiences and objects.”
John W. Dean, a former presidential counsel (for Richard Nixon), using the Berlin metaphor classified a number of US presidents as hedgehogs and foxes. In his column he wrote:
“With no fear of contradiction, Barack Obama can be described as a fox and George W. Bush as clearly a hedgehog. It is more difficult than I thought to describe all modern American presidents as either foxes or hedgehogs, but labeling FDR, JFK, and Clinton as foxes and LBJ and Reagan as hedgehogs is not likely to be contested. Less clear is how to categorize Truman, Nixon, Carter and Bush I. But Obama and Bush II are prototypical of these labels.”
Tetlock, in referring to pundit accuracy scores wrote that:
“Low scorers look like hedgehogs: thinkers who “know one big thing,” aggressively extend the explanatory reach of that one big thing into new domains, display bristly impatience with those who “do not get it,” and express considerable confidence that they are already pretty proficient forecasters, at least in the long term. High scorers look like foxes: thinkers who know many small things (tricks of their trade), are skeptical of grand schemes, see explanation and prediction not as deductive exercises but rather as exercises in flexible “ad hocery” that require stitching together diverse sources of information, and are rather diffident about their own forecasting prowess.”
Tetlock was careful to point out that there was no correlation between political affiliation and either hedgehog or fox classification. But what he did note was that the most accurate pundits were foxes and that the key variable associated with their success was introspection. Those who studied their own decision making process, were open to dealing with dissonance, and those who were not blinded by their preconceptions were far more capable of making accurate predictions. Successful pundits were also cautious about their predictions and were inclined to take information from a wide variety of sources.
Hedgehogs on the other hand, were prone to certainty and grand “irrefutable” ideas. They tend to boil problems down to simple grand theories or conflicts (e.g., good versus evil, socialism versus capitalism, free markets versus government regulations, and so on) and view these big issues as being the driving force of history. They are prone to over simplify situations and miss the many and diverse issues that ultimately shape history. They instead are more likely to attribute historical changes to single great men with simple great ideas (e.g., Ronald Reagan was responsible for the fall of the USSR, and without his leadership the cold war may still be raging).
So what are you a hedgehog or a fox? Both thinking approaches have strengths and weaknesses and appropriate and less appropriate applications. What were Copernicus, da Vinci, Galileo, Newton, Einstein, and Darwin? When do you suppose it is good to be a hedgehog and when a fox? I suppose it comes down to the task at hand: big unifying issues such as gravity, relativity, evolution, quantum mechanics may indeed necessitate hedgehog thinking. Here such single minded determinism is likely essential to persevere. Although, having read Darwin’s On the Origin of Species I am inclined to think that Darwin was a fox. Da Vinci too, was likely a fox, considering the vastness of his contributions. And Galileo was similarly a broad thinker. Knowing little of Newton and Einstein, I care not to speculate. It seems to me with the specialization of science these days, one must be a hedgehog. Early science history is replete with foxes. I don’t know about you, but I have a romantic notion about the lifestyles of men like Galileo and Darwin, following their curiosities dabbling hither and yon.
Berlin, I. (1953). The Hedgehog and the Fox. The Isaiah Berlin Virtual Library. http://berlin.wolf.ox.ac.uk/published_works/rt/HF.pdf
Chabris, C. F., & Simons, D. J. (2010). The Invisible Gorilla. New York: Random House.
Dean, J. (2009). Barack Obama Is a “Fox,” Not a “Hedgehog,” and Thus More Likely To Get It Right. http://writ.news.findlaw.com/dean/20090724.html
Lehrer, J. (2009). How We Decide. New York: Houghton Mifflin Harcourt.
Menand, L. (2005). Everybody’s an Expert. The New Yorker. http://www.newyorker.com/archive/2005/12/05/051205crbo_books1?printable=true
Tetlock, P.E. (2005). Expert political judgment: How good is it? How can we know? Princeton: Princeton University Press.