February 27, 2009

Foxes and Hedgehogs

"The fox knows many things, but the hedgehog knows one big thing."
--Some ancient Greek dude named Archilochus

Research suggests that some people are "hedgehogs" and others are "foxes." This dichotomy came up recently in a Newsweek article about political pundits. Inspired by the ancient Greek poet, and further developed by philosopher Isaiah Berlin, the division of the world into people who think like "foxes" versus "hedgehogs" is a handy concept.

So how you do spot a "hedgehog" or a "fox" in the wild?

According to the article, hedgehogs know "one big thing." They "apply that one thing everywhere, express supreme confidence in their forecasts, dismiss opposing views and are drawn to top-down arguments deduced from that Big Idea."

Foxes, on the other hand, "know many things. They consider competing views, make bottom-up inductive arguments from an array of facts and doubt the power of Big Ideas."

"At one extreme, hedgehogs seek certainty and closure, dismiss information that undercuts their preconceptions and embrace evidence that reinforces them, in what is called 'belief defense and bolstering.' At the other extreme, foxes are cognitively flexible, modest and open to self-criticism."

Are you a Fox or a Hedgehog? And who would you rather listen to on TV?

The Newsweek article explored the reasons why the experts you hear pontificating in the media often have their heads up their asses make inaccurate predictions about what's going to happen in the future.

Turns out, it's at least partly because the media favors the very sort of pundit who is the least able to make accurate predictions. "The media's preferred pundits are forceful, confident and decisive, not tentative and balanced." The problem: these are not the people we should be listening to.

(This is all based on research by Philip Tetlock, who did a big study on the accuracy of expert predictions and wrote a book about it a few years ago.)

Those forceful, highly-regarded pundits? They're generally "hedgehogs." And compared to the more tentative "foxes," hedgehogs are really bad at predicting what will happen in the future. Tetlock looked at 82,361 predictions by 284 pundits, and found that the "The hedgehog-fox dimension distinguished more accurate forecasters from less accurate ones." And the more well-known the expert? The less likely it was he or she would be accurate.

Cranky Fitness prides itself on being totally obscure, so if we were ever to try to predict anything, you could totally trust us!

Also, without having read either Berlin or Tetlock, we created a somewhat similar "cognitive style analysis" a while back: the Screaming Baby-Heads versus the Wishy-Washy Grown-Ups.) Alas, Newsweek is not citing our analysis, which is too bad, because we could use a little publicity so we could let it go to our heads and get all confident and forceful like the hedgehogs!

Anyway, is it safe to assume that most of us here are Foxes, not Hedgehogs? Cranky Fitness does not have "the answer" to anything. Around here, it's all "maybe," and "apparently" and "on the other hand" and "what do we know?" and "whooops!" We also kinda get from reading your comments that you guys are every bit as flexible and balanced and confused as we are. This is Fox territory, not a great roosting place for Hedgehogs.

But Hey, Aren't We Cute When We're Angry?
(Photo: meantux)

"Tentative, Balanced, and Proud of It!"

It's not a very catchy slogan, is it? But that's how we roll.

It's funny, this post was originally going to be about "Hedgehog Envy." Because sometimes I do think it would be so nice to be a Hedgehog! It would be so much easier to look at the confusing, ever-changing, frustrating, complicated world we live in and feel less conflicted and mystified.

But it's almost like there's something in the air--a barely perceptible change in tone that making the world a bit more hospitable to foxes these days. Not that we'll ever hear the end of the hedgehogs--the media will continue to favor them and of course they NEVER shut up.

However (and this may just be wishful thinking), I get the sense that regular people (as opposed to media outlets) are getting weary of all the forceful hedgehog types out there. The defensive posturing, inflexibility, black and white thinking, and "easy" answers--these don't seem the best match for the messy, complicated world we live in right now.

But I'm not a hedgehog, so what the hell do I know? What do you folks think about foxes and hedgehogs?


  1. Intriguing. Now I'm going to go about my day judging who is a fox vs. a hedgehog. gosh darnit!

    oh oh speaking of foxes, i saw one the other day, right by the train stop. It was so cute. They had to pull me back from feeding it. It's a no-no apparently..who knew?

    Have a great weekend!

  2. Uh oh.. I think I'm a hedgehog.

    The baby wakes me up a 4am and now I find out I'm a hedgehog. Damn!

    Can't there by type A & B hedgehogs to distinguish the cool ones (like me) from the idiots on TV?

  3. hmmm, Im a foxhog.

    A hedgeox?

  4. I actually know a guy who owns a hedgehog. Curmudgenly little beast that sleeps during the day and scuttles around at night, then curles up into a little ball and tried to stick anything that threatens it with its quills. They're sharp, too. I learned the hard way.

    I've been an outdoorsman most of my life, and only seen a fox 3 times in the wild. Secretive and sly, they are...

  5. This post rings of "jack of all trades, master of none". I wouldn't know how you are catagorized if you have expertise in a particular area, and have the ability to understand life from another point of view. Maybe this is where Jackalope came from.

  6. I've got a hedgehog bootscraper at the back door; great for scraping the dirt off before I get in the house.

    And that pretty much sums up my opinion about the hedgehog commentators. (I don't suppose you have anyone particular in mind?)

  7. I think that I am more foxy (ha!) than hedgehog, but I agree with you...Seems like it would be easier to be a hedgehog, to be sure and confident all the time. On the other hand, I'd say Husband leans more toward the Hedgehog and it can be aggravating sometimes.

    Love that picture of the baby fox, by the way. Adorable!

  8. I'm having trouble getting beyond the image of a forceful hedgehog.It'll keep me smiling all day.
    That aside, I don't have much use for the one- idea-make-it-fit types. Give me the tentative fox.

  9. I'm payed to be a hedgehog, but I'm a fox in H.H's furry clothing :-)
    (Like the fox-hog)

  10. I'm alwasy leery of easy answers...I think I'm a paranoid fox.

  11. Definitely a hedgehog, but not because of my reasoning pattern. I relate to the hedgehog, because although it has spikes on its back and rolls into a ball when frustrated, it has a soft and fuzzy underbelly. The hedgehog is a misunderstood introvert. :-)

  12. Definitely a fox, here. There are so many interesting points of view, why should I be stuck with just ONE?

    (On the other hand, I cherish my ability to curl up into a ball and be prickly.)

    Mary Anne in Kentucky

  13. Part of the problem is the animal imagery seems so backwards--I picture hedgehogs as having the flexible, self-effacing personalities, and foxes as being the self-confident Big Idea people. Darn that ancient Greek poet for picking the wrong animals!

  14. I've definitely got hedgehoggy tendencies, but I think I'm a fox.

  15. I like the Screaming Baby Heads vs. Wishy Washy Grownups better than the animals, personally. :)

    I like to think I'm a fox. And also that it's possible to be flexible and creatove and able to admit you're wrong but still have a few moral absolutes in which, hedgehog-like, you won't budge. I HOPE even the talking heads aren't as universally unyielding as they are paid to appear.

  16. I would most definately say that I prefer Foxes to Hedgehogs (although both are equally adorable animals.)

    That may be why I tend to not watch television pundits very often, and when I do find myself getting frustrated with their bullheadedness and lack of perspective.

    I also tend to think that people don't fit so neatly into the little boxes psychologists and analysts like to try to force us all into. But there I go again, seeing things from all angles ^_~

  17. My brother-in-law is such a fox! (Wait, that sounds a bit too friendly...)

    We tease him because we'll play a new board game and afterward he''ll say "Blah-blah-blah is key!" and go on and on about one strategy while the rest of us seem to think there are a number of possible strategies to winning rather than just one. Funny thing is, the next time we play he'll be saying something else is "key."

    I'm sure I'm a fox about some things but shouldn't be.

    Then again, a hedgehog may be so hesitant that they never act.

    I'd rather be a fox-hog.

  18. Hmmn... I tend to curl up in a ball when threatened, but I often feel pointless... could I be an ex-hedgehog?

  19. "It would be so much easier to look at the confusing, ever-changing, frustrating, complicated world we live in and feel less conflicted and mystified."

    I feel that way often, but I can't bring myself to do it. If I could just stick to my guns, I would always know the "right" course of action. Unfortunately (or not), I find myself questioning my strongest opinions on a regular basis.

    I think that while the imagery seems backwards, if you look at it as foxes being clever and finding different ways to do things (like get away from bloodhounds and hunters), and hedgehogs pretty much sticking to their one defense (curling up in a ball and refusing to budge), it does make sense.

  20. Hey, this is wrong! Hedgehogs are nice, remember Mrs. Tiggywinkle?

    Bottom line: don't watch TV pundits. I suspect that some of them are actually a third category: giant squids.

  21. Am I the only person who doesn't remember Mrs. Tiggywinkle? The first time I encountered that character, she was a fiction detective in the Jasper Fforde novels.

  22. I'm pretty foxy. Hahahahahahahaha
    'Nuff said.

  23. If pundits weren't so commonly of the hedgehog variety, I wouldn't need to read so many different sources just to get a little prespective on a situation. What I'm doing works, though. I was out of the market before the crash.

    I have little patience with pure hedgehog types, since I believe a toolbox is most useful when it contains something besides just a hammer. Sure, a hammer is sometimes the exact right tool for a job, and hooray for the folks who show up with hammers at the ready. But when what's really needed is a screwdriver or a pair of vice grips, those "hammer only" types create more problems than they solve.

    Or so say I. I'm just one little fox, trying to make sense of this crazy world.

  24. The first time I heard this it was in connection with Tolstoy and some other writing dude whose name I have forgotten. The point being that Tolstoy was a hedgehog--he certainly did have one big thing in War and Peace--and the other dude was entertaining but not as deep. Hm. (Unless it was the other way around, I forget.)

    So I never got the impression that the saying was really supposed to emphasize the superiority of one type over the other.

    I'm definitely a fox. *snicker* But I think the hedgehog has some pretty mean survival skills.

    I think the screaming baby pundits are more jackasses. Calling them hedgehogs is doing hedgehogs a disservice.

  25. I am definitely a fox but I don't know how I feel about the "fox" type appearing as wishy-washy. I'm not at all wishy-washy, I'm just open to ideas and other opinions even though they rarely change mine.


  26. ... can't complete a thought apparently.

  27. Sorry, but when I think about foxes, I think of that family of critters that invaded our new home last year and dug up all my tomatoes, asparagus and other food seedlings. I'm trying to stay away from politics and get my life in order! Vee at www.veegettinghealthy.blogspot.com

  28. Neat, this is like the Interpretive (more artsy/Fox) and Objective (science-based/Hedgehog)scholars we talk about in my Communications Theories class. I'm super interpretive. The bad part about that is it makes me come off as really indecisive because I'm all about "let's look at this perspective too! There are multiple truths!" hehe.

  29. I would say I'm definitely a fox but I can see how being a hedgehog would have it's advantages. Probably not in an atmosphere that relies on accurate predictions but I think a great deal of academia is made up of hedgehogs and where would us research fiends be without them??

  30. it's not a one-size-fits-all world. I'd like to think I'm the best part of the fox and the hedgehog in a complete package :)

  31. I'd have to go with Fox, even though it is my least favorite news channel presumably filled with hedgehogs.

    I may be a weigher to an extreme - to the point where I've compiled detailed analysis on a subject for weeks (or years) and still don't feel informed enough to decide. That's why it took me four years to decide on a new couch (still not sure if it was the right decision).

  32. I've been reading the blog about a week now... is the name just random? In what way is this a fitness blog????

  33. Ooh, I know that one! raises hand excitedly
    The blog is your guide to "Health, Fitness, Nutrition, Personal Development, and Whining."

    See... you need to read beyond the title to the words underneath. Fine print is important :)

  34. All these comments and no one has anything clever to say about Fox News?
    Shrug. Neither do I, I guess.
    I'm a fox constantly striving for hedgehogness. I get so wrapped up in the details I can't make a decision. I think most people do, and we get overwhelmed with stuff like the economy that it's easier to just listen to and accept a hedgehog.
    Good article.

  35. Um...I'm not sure I fit one or the other. I guess that's kind of telling in itself! I'd like to think I'm a fox-type, but then I get very hedgehog-like with some issues. I generally notice when I'm doing this, though, and it gives me much to ponder.

  36. I mean I tend to respond to foxy so I must be a fox right?

  37. I don't think I even come close to being a hedgehog, so a fox I'm sure I am. Isn't a fox sly and wary? I've always tried to not dismiss opposing opinions. I do hate people that are really opinionated and feel that their opinion is the only one that matters.

  38. Not sure what this makes me... but it's obvious that one is the "good type" (fox) and one is the "bad type" and I don't buy into the thought that there's only two types of people.

    But that dismissing above means, of course, that some will assume I must be a hedgehog.

  39. Lyn, the well-known (heck, she's famous!) blogger at "Escape from Obesity," has been candid about her struggles recently.

    Lyn has been an inspiration to thousands of dieters, and right now she needs a little encouragement. Drop by her blog at escapefromobesity.blogspot.com and give her some support.

  40. Fox, previously living with hedgehogs, it is a maddening thing to be stuck between two of them at once!

  41. My alma mater used the fox vs. hedgehog line in its promotional material to new students to push interdisciplinary studies. :) I'm a fox (evidenced by my Russian Area Studies degree).

    Also, re: "jack of all trades, master of none" comment, the rest of that quote is "though often better than a master of one".

  42. I'm a fox. Mostly because I like learning about things, but only until I get bored. So I never really know a lot about any one thing, thus making me supremely aware of my non-qualification to speak with authority. (Seriously, so many of my statements begin with, "I read somewhere, though I don't remember where now . . . " It's sad. ;D)


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