Culture & Society

An Old Recipe for a More Balanced Discourse

Finding ways to encourage more fox-like thinking can help reduce social conflict and groupthink

Image Credit: Raphael, Italian (1483-1520), detail from “School of Athens”/Wikimedia Commons

Higher education produces too much uniform and simplistic thinking. This limits a person’s ability to function well in the world, and it reduces one’s ability to understand people who think differently. Ultimately, it can lead to conflict, groupthink and the rise of mediocrity.

A potentially useful framework for understanding this problem comes from Archilochus, a Greek philosopher who lived in the 7th century BCE. He wrote what has now become a much-quoted fable based on the following idea: A fox and a hedgehog were together in the woods. Wolves approached, and the fox and the hedgehog feared for their safety. To defend itself, the fox used his cunning and wit to lead the wolves through the woods and fields, eventually losing them and emerging unharmed. The hedgehog hunkered down in place and waited for the threat to pass, relying on his spikes to defend him, at which point he safely resumed his journey.

If we stopped there, our lesson might simply be that we should each use our innate talents and skills to make our way in the world and through life. However, Archilochus, in a rough translation, summed up his idea in the following quote: “A fox knows many things, but a hedgehog one big thing.”

No one knows exactly what Archilochus meant by these words, but many have layered on their own interpretations. Perhaps the most well-known explanation comes from British philosopher Isaiah Berlin. In Berlin’s 1953 essay, he applied the categorization to a wide array of writers and thinkers, suggesting that they could be divided into two groups: foxes, who draw from a broad range of experiences and knowledge, and hedgehogs, who see the world through a single defining idea. Berlin wrote:

Taken figuratively, the words can be made to yield a sense in which they mark one of the deepest differences which divide writers and thinkers, and, it may be, human beings in general. For there exists a great chasm between those, on one side, who 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, organising principle in terms of which alone all that they are and say has significance—and, on the other side, those who pursue many ends, often unrelated and even contradictory, connected, if at all, only in some de facto way, for some psychological or physiological cause, related to no moral or aesthetic principle.

While Berlin doesn’t appear to make a normative judgment about which one is better, others do. In a 2005 book, for instance, Professor Philip Tetlock abandoned Berlin’s neutrality (at least in the context Tetlock studied) and used the fox and hedgehog framework to examine how well experts predicted outcomes. He found that, while hedgehogs are often more persuasive—Tetlock speculates this was due to a greater strength in their convictions—foxes are generally better forecasters. He suggests the superior forecasting stemmed from the foxes’ stronger aptitude for critical thinking and greater intellectual humility as well as from their willingness to update their beliefs when they come across new evidence.

Sketch of Isaiah Berlin by Arturo Espinosa

Foxes may have an advantage in other contexts as well. One possible interpretation of the fable is that the hedgehog is so confident that his spikes will protect him that he stakes his entire survival on that one line of defense. The fox, meanwhile, diversifies his efforts in the hopes of maximizing his chances of surviving the prowling wolves. When it comes to difficult problems—much like outsmarting a pack of wolves—do we have reason to be as confident as the hedgehog that we have the right solutions? It’s hard to imagine that we do.

I have argued elsewhere that, when it comes to how we think and communicate about challenging social problems and sensitive topics, thinking like a fox is clearly the way to go. Consider a topic as broad and consequential as inequality. Understanding the world, as is often done in higher education, as a hierarchical system that generates disparate outcomes with no role played by the choices made by or preferences of the individual actors is a rather hedgehog-like approach. A fox-like understanding might be one where discrimination, differential access to opportunity, structural factors, individual behaviors, preferences and luck all intermingle in a yet-unknown order of ranked importance.

Does this mean, however, that we would want a society of only foxes, if such a thing were even possible? While it may sound silly, a society full of people struggling to make decisions because they’re constantly second-guessing themselves and drowning in intellectual humility hardly seems sustainable. So maybe the solution to the problem of too many hedgehogs isn’t a society populated solely with foxes.

Paralyzing indecision is not the only potential problem in a society full of foxes. To grow and thrive, we need the grand, unifying ideas that hedgehogs bring. We want to be able to explain and understand the world around us, and sometimes that requires an overarching theory of how the world works. And sometimes those grand ideas are going to be right.

The problem comes when there are too many hedgehogs who share the same overarching explanation. In that case, the explanation doesn’t get criticized or challenged in the way it should—indeed, as all ideas should. The upshot is we need the right composition. One way to get there from where we are now is to produce more foxes.

The most direct way to produce more fox-like thinkers is by reorienting education. More foxes would emerge if students were encouraged to embrace a nuanced and complex view of the world and of societal problems. However, there’s an additional challenge in this effort. While it’s clear that our current fox-to-hedgehog ratio is suboptimal, the incentives to transform it work in the wrong direction. Both inside higher education and out, when it comes to discourse, the rewards for being a hedgehog are often much greater than those tied to being a fox, making this shift considerably more difficult.

The incentives to think like a hedgehog are seductive. As already noted, hedgehogs have greater abilities of persuasion. Why? First, people are more likely to listen to an argument when it’s backed by great strength of conviction. This conviction can come across as greater self-assurance and, as a result, may garner more attention. Additionally, many people have a natural preference for short, tidy solutions and explanations. This desire is summed up nicely in Harry Truman’s famous quote, “Give me a one-handed economist. All my economists say ‘on the one hand . . . ,’ then ‘but on the other. . . .’”

Incentives aside, the good news is that even the most hedgehog-like among us already have a context-specific capacity to comprehend and appreciate nuance when it comes to difficult issues. In other words, with a little effort, even the staunchest of hedgehogs can think more like foxes. Sometimes, it’s a question of being able to expand the range of subjects to which we apply this skill.

The example given earlier—discussing the complex origins of inequality and poverty—may be harder for some on the political left. And, to some on the political right, allowing for complexity when thinking about, for instance, a convicted criminal’s prospects for rehabilitation, might not come easily. Strengthening and flexing the muscle that lets us see nuance and expand it to the topics on which we feel the most righteous would go a long way in improving discourse. If producing more foxes doesn’t work, one possibility remains.

This is a more challenging route: we could try to diversify the big ideas embraced by hedgehogs. In other words, maybe there isn’t a singular optimal balance of foxes and hedgehogs for any given society. Or, maybe the perfect balance depends on the homogeneity of thinking that exists in the hedgehog population. For example, discourse in a society where 40% of its citizens think as hedgehogs, and where all the hedgehogs share the same unified theory of how the world works, is probably much less healthy than one where that same 40% exhibits wide variation in their unifying theories.

Of the two possible solutions to bring better balance, producing more foxes is probably more attainable, simply because it doesn’t require the development of an entirely new overarching theory. It instead requires diversity of thought, the promotion of critical thinking and a willingness to recognize that, while the currently dominant hedgehog narrative might be right, it might also be wrong. Again, we can probably all agree on the importance of reducing conflict and groupthink—doing that requires finding a better balance. And, who knows, maybe the hedgehog would be a lot safer if he didn’t rely so heavily on his spikes.


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