The Paradox of Societal Polarization: We are all Hedgefoxes


“The fox knows many things, but the hedgehog knows one big thing.” —

Archilochus

We are so quick to organize ourselves into different categories. Politics. Religion. Sports teams. Keto vs paleo vs aerivore.

We like labels. It’s an iteration of community building, which is a key part of the human psyche. We are social creatures, and that comes out in how we identify with the world around us. 

We even segment according to how we think. 


Hedgefoxes, or perhaps, Foxhogs

Sir Isaiah Berlin in The Hedgehog and the Fox, (in a brilliant review on Tolstoy), divided thinkers into two categories: hedgehogs and foxes. As described by psychologist Philip Tetlock:

Foxes have different strategies for different problems. They are comfortable with nuance; they can live with contradictions. Hedgehogs, on the other hand, focus on the big picture. They reduce every problem to one organizing principle.

Philip Tetlock

Another take:

David Siegel provided an updated list of hedgehogs and foxes in a 2016 YouTube video.

Source: David Siegel

When I was doing research for this article, there were endless articles titled: “Are you a fox or a hedgehog?” or “Is your business a Fox or a Hedgehog?” or “Should Product Managers be the Fox or the Hedgehog?” and in a fun twist, “Are you a Hedgehog or a Fox?”

Basically, once you decide your level of hedgehog-ness or fox-ness, the gates of decision making will open up to you.

It’s a new age Enlightenment.

In all honesty (and an attempted embrace into the new age creed) I wanted to do a profile on Elon Musk, relative to a fox personality style. He even had a well-fitting tweet about a hedgehog that amplified his foxiness.

(The S3XY refers to the available Tesla models)

I am interested in how Elon Musk leads- I would think most people are. Examining his style from a fox would be interesting — he has varied interests across SpaceX, Tesla, Neuralink, etc. He seems to be the epitome of one that knows many things. 

Elon Musk obviously knows enough about enough. But he also knows One Thing: “We must pass The Great Filter”. What if that is his Big Idea, and he is simply a hedgehog using fox tendencies to get there? What if we are all like that, Hedgefoxes (Foxhogs?), with a One Big Idea with lots of small little ideas on how to get there?


Tetlock’s Fox-Hedgehog Continuum

There’s a quiz for that. Philip Tetlock wrote about hedgehogs vs foxes (amongst many other things) in Expert Political Judgement: How Good Is It? How Can We Know? , crafting the below quiz, which was posted on Overcoming Bias by Hal Finney by in 2006.

Finney describes hedgehogs as: 

The hedgehog is said to know one thing and know it well. He sees events and trends in terms of his big idea, and aggressively extends it into new realms. Hedgehogs tend to be confident in the applicability of their fundamental concepts and impatient with those who “do not get it”.”

And foxes are described as:

Foxes… know many small things which they bring to bear in their analyses in a dynamical and flexible way. They tend to be uncertain and flexible, “on the other hand” types who are skeptical about their own predictive ability and in fact about the whole enterprise of making predictions in such an intractable realm.

And the quiz is below, if you’d like to determine your personal animal spirit. 

Simple directions- “If you agree, give yourself that many points, and if you disagree, give yourself the negative of that many points. Note that some of the questions have a negative point value, so for those you subtract from your score if you agree, and add to your score (make it more positive) if you disagree” as described by Finley:

The range of possible outcomes is -54 being the most hedgehoggy and 54 being the most foxy. 

I am a moderate fox. (7 + 3 +5 — 4 +5–2 +5 + 6+4+5 -3 +4 +1 = 36)

If you read my work, you can see that. My most recent piece was on the economic of bees. The one before, on dating app algorithms. Now, it’s this. I cannot stay on a straight line, giving consideration to all available possibilities and processes.

But being a fox isn’t a bad thing, according to Tetlock’s analysis of predictive accuacy and bias. 


Humans: We Cannot Predict the Future

Humans are not good at prediction. According to Tetlock’s work, we barely outperformed chimps (+0.01) in terms of accurately predicting the future. We were bested by models that used historical results to predict the future.

Autoregressive models did the best according to Tetlock, as “the best human forecasters were hard-pressed to predict more than 20 percent of the total variability in outcomes…, the generalized autoregressive distributed lag models explained on average 47 percent of the variance

So, Tetlock provided some data to what most of us already know: Humans really aren’t good at predicting the future.

But are some humans better than others? How did foxes compare to hedgehogs?

Well, to begin with, the hedgehogs did worse than chimps. The foxes did better, but still worse than the models.

Tetlock explains that:

  • Hedgehogs actually do worse in their own fields where they are supposed to be experts than when they are forced to make predictions in other areas (bit concerning).
  • Hedgehog (political) extremists do far worse than moderates.
  • Hedgehogs tended to reject scenarios which did not fit their pet models
  • Hedgehogs do not like ‘far-fetched and pointless’ speculation

But hedgehogs aren’t necessarily worse than foxes: this isn’t an absolute game, it’s relative. They just carry different biases. 

In fact, Tetlock himself says: “The hedgehogs are more the big idea people, more decisive. In most MBA programs, they’d probably be viewed as better leadership material.”

Hedgehogs have the uncanny ability to stay solely focused on one goal and see it to total completion. They stay on a path towards their goals, and work under a Big Idea or Big Mission, which is admirable. 


We are all Hedgefoxes

However, it’s a disservice to classify ourselves as purely a Fox or a Hedgehog. We all have tendencies of both, and should embrace those nuances. We don’t have to fit cleanly into boxes.

As Berlin so wonderfully put it, 

Of course, like all over-simple classifications of this type, the dichotomy becomes, if pressed, artificial, scholastic and ultimately absurd. But if it is not an aid to serious criticism, neither should it be rejected as being merely superficial or frivolous; like all distinctions which embody any degree of truth, it offers a point of view from which to look and compare, a starting-point for genuine investigation

Isaiah Berlin

The problem arises when we decide that we must belong into one box.

That our way of thinking is the only way of thinking.

That we are FULL HEDGEHOG. or FULL FOX.

Source: Foxy Data Science

Tetlock addresses this in Expert Political Judgement, stating 

“My participants were fully capable of thinking about thinking (“metacognition”) and of transcending my procrustean categories by making midstream-of-consciousnesses adjustments when they suspect that they have gone too far in any one direction. I should not fall into the essentialist trap of viewing “hedgehogs” and “foxes” as distinct cognitive species.”

Philip Tetlock

Berlin also reminds us in his brilliant Message to the 21st Century that One Big Idea can cause “kill and maim with a tranquil conscience under the influence of the words and writings of some of those who are certain that they know perfection can be reached.”

In a similar pattern to Mandeville and the Fable of the Bees, Berlin reminds us of ‘value pluralism’ that idea that there is no perfect society, that there can be no harmonious combination of liberty, equality, and justice. Life is but a series of tradeoffs.

The search for one ‘true’ idea, the ‘hedgehog problem’ arises when we cannot recognize the tradeoffs for what they are — unavoidable.

As Berlin writes, “The search for a single overarching ideal because it is the one and only true one for humanity, invariably leads to coercion” and ultimately totalitarianism (sound familiar?).

I’m including his final three paragraphs of the short credo, as any attempt I would make to summarize would fall short. 

“Justice has always been a human ideal, but it is not fully compatible with mercy. Creative imagination and spontaneity, splendid in themselves, cannot be fully reconciled with the need for planning, organization, careful and responsible calculation. Knowledge, the pursuit of truth — the noblest of aims — cannot be fully reconciled with the happiness or the freedom that men desire, for even if I know that I have some incurable disease this will not make me happier or freer. I must always choose: between peace and excitement, or knowledge and blissful ignorance. And so on.

“So what is to be done to restrain the champions, sometimes very fanatical, of one or other of these values, each of whom tends to trample upon the rest, as the great tyrants of the twentieth century have trampled on the life, liberty, and human rights of millions because their eyes were fixed upon some ultimate golden future?

“I am afraid I have no dramatic answer to offer: only that if these ultimate human values by which we live are to be pursued, then compromises, trade-offs, arrangements have to be made if the worst is not to happen. So much liberty for so much equality, so much individual self-expression for so much security, so much justice for so much compassion. My point is that some values clash: the ends pursued by human beings are all generated by our common nature, but their pursuit has to be to some degree controlled — liberty and the pursuit of happiness, I repeat, may not be fully compatible with each other, nor are liberty, equality, and fraternity.”

Source: Isaiah Berlin

Embrace being a Hedgefox. Embrace Big Ideas, Small Ideas, all ideas. The lens of life is not meant to be viewed from only one angle. Tradeoffs are unavoidable, and probably best viewed as the spice of life. 

There is no One Big Idea. There is no One Solution. But there is a Great Filter (maybe).

Thanks for reading! This post was inspired by Elon Musk, as well as the concept of animal spirits (do the bull and bear matter, or we evolving into something entirely different?)

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