Mar 8 2022
The first I heard of the intriguing distinction between foxes and hedgehogs is in Woody Allen’s movie Husbands and Wives, in which Sally, played by Judy Davis, maniacally classifies the people in her life as foxes or hedgehogs.
We often use animal metaphors to categorize personalities, roles, or behaviors. Scrum has given us pigs, who are committed to a project, and chickens, who are merely involved. An individual may be foolishly riding a tiger, be someone else’s lapdog, or have a cat’s nine lives…
Was “the hedgehog and the fox” yet another unproven psychological theory? Sadly, yes. Modern psychologists have indeed built a theoretical house of cards on top of a poetic one-liner from 2700 years ago.
The Ancient Greek Fragment
Intrigued by the Woody Allen movie, I looked up sources but all I found is an essay by British academic Isaiah Berlin called The Hedgehog And The Fox. He introduces these animals on page 1 and then barely refers to them in the following 80. He references a Greek poet named Archilochus from the 7th century BCE, whose work we only know through fragments. The total of fragment 201 is just seven words: “Πόλλ᾽ οἶδ᾽ ἀλώπηξ, ἀλλ’ ἐχῖνος ἕν μέγα,” which translates to “The fox knows many things, but the hedgehog knows one big thing.” That’s it! What he meant by it is for us to figure out.
The fragment does not imply that everybody is either a fox or a hedgehog. which is why Sally has such a difficult time sorting out her acquaintances. The fox, as a cunning prankster, has a long history in european folk tales and fables; the hedgehog, not so much. The fox is slightly larger than a house cat. The hedgehog is just a large mouse that feeds on insects and has a defensive coat of spiky quills. In some languages, “hedgehog” is a metaphor for a prickly, difficult person but there is no evidence of hedgehogs credited with special knowledge of anything, let alone “one big thing.”
The City Slickers Interpretation
In City Slickers, cowboy Curly explains that the secret of life is focusing on just one thing:
That makes Curly a hedgehog, and the city clicker he is telling this to a fox, stressed out by multitasking urban life. This is one interpretation.
Isaiah Berlin’s Interpretation
Isaiah Berlin’s interpretation differs from Curly’s. To him, hedgehogs are thinkers who “relate everything to a single central vision, one system […] in terms of which they understand, think and feel,” while foxes “pursue many ends, often unrelated and even contradictory.” Seeing all that in the single Archilochus sentence is a feat of inference, and I am baffled by the examples Berlin gives.
Phil Tetlock’s on Forecasting by Foxes and Hedgehogs
The concepts of hedgehogs and foxes have, predictably, been attractive to psychologists. Phil Tetlock, in particular, is cited as having “established” that foxes are better at forecasting than hedgehogs. How? First, he surveyed thousands of people and asked them to categorize themselves as foxes or hedgehogs based on Berlin’s definition. Then he asked them for their subjective probability assessment of events and plotted the actual relative frequencies of these events against the assessments. For example, if assessments were perfect, it should rain on 25% of the days for which the subjective probability of rain is 25%. On the chart, perfect assessments line up on the diagonal. Points below the diagonal indicate subjective probabilities above actual relative frequencies and vice versa:
Tetlock’s observation was that short-term forecasts of events by self-described foxes were closer to the diagonal than long-term forecasts of events by self-described hedgehogs. From this, he jumps to the conclusion that foxes are better at forecasting than hedgehogs. By this standard of analytical rigor, dark chocolate makes you lose weight.
John Lewis Gaddis on Foxes versus Hedgehog Careers
Following up on Tetlock and Berlin, Yale historian John Lewis Gaddis asserts that hedgehogs rise faster than foxes in organizations. As true believers in a system, hedgehogs are better at producing compelling sound bites for the media than foxes who hem and haw. While electoral politics may be sensitive to sound bites on TV, HR management in business is not.
Specialist Versus Generalist
The Archilochus fragment does not support Berlin’s interpretation any more than cowboy Curly’s. In fact, I believe that Berlin and his followers are seeing meaning in the fragment that isn’t there. If we want to cite Archilochus, we should stick to what we actually have by him.
By a simple substitution, we can turn the fragment into “the generalist knows many things, but the specialist knows one big thing,” which suggests the alternative interpretation that generalists are foxes and specialists hedgehogs.
In this sense, an orchestra conductor, a general practitioner MD, and an operations manager in manufacturing are foxes; a lead violinist, a heart surgeon, and a chemical engineer, hedgehogs.
In a company, the foxes go up the management ladder to become executives; the hedgehogs, up the technical ladder — if there is one — from engineer to member of research staff, and fellow.
In professional life, it is a distinction that is relative, not absolute, as you are always a generalist/fox to some and a specialist/hedgehog to others. Any medical doctor is a hedgehog to the rest of us but a fox to a surgeon, and a surgeon, in turn, is a fox to a heart surgeon or a brain surgeon,…
For a hedgehog to be on an equal footing with a fox, the one thing he or she knows must be “big.” Archilochus says “mega” (μέγα), which we understand without having learned ancient Greek. The solo violinist in an orchestra is a hedgehog and on an equal footing with the conductor/fox, particularly when playing a violin concerto. In today’s machine shops, a machinist who can operate multiple machines in a cell would be a hedgehog to the first-line manager/fox; one who knows everything about a specific lathe but nothing else would not qualify as a hedgehog.
Whatever explanations Archilochus had of what he meant are lost to us. All we have is a one-liner to twist and bend however we want as Berlin, Totler, and Gaddis have. Perhaps, we should just take it as poetry.