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The Fox And The Hedgehog: The Triumphs And Perils Of Going Big

Psychologist Phil Tetlock thinks the parable of the fox and the hedgehog represents two different cognitive styles. "The hedgehogs are more the big idea people, more decisive," while the foxes are more accepting of nuance, more open to using different approaches with different problems.
Renee Klahr
Psychologist Phil Tetlock thinks the parable of the fox and the hedgehog represents two different cognitive styles. "The hedgehogs are more the big idea people, more decisive," while the foxes are more accepting of nuance, more open to using different approaches with different problems.

The Greek poet Archilochus wrote, "the fox knows many things, but the hedgehog knows one big thing."

There are many different interpretations of this parable, but psychologist Phil Tetlock sees it as a way of understanding two cognitive styles: 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.

"The hedgehogs are more the big idea people, more decisive. In most MBA programs, they'd probably be viewed as better leadership material," Tetlock says.

This week, we have the story of a hedgehog by the name of Don Laub: a young surgeon who was eager to make his mark. In his words, he wanted to "do a big thing, and help a lot of people."

"It was a mistake," says Don Laub, on his decision to operate on a young boy named Salvador. "But...I'm not whipping myself." Laub is pictured here in 2011.
/ Creative Commons
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Creative Commons
"It was a mistake," says Don Laub, on his decision to operate on a young boy named Salvador. "But...I'm not whipping myself." Laub is pictured here in 2011.

One day, Don got his chance when a colleague asked him if he could help with a surgery. The patient was a child from Mexico with a cleft lip and palate, and the surgery was simple. Don says it gave the child, who had been ostracized in his community, a real chance in life.

The experience inspired him to organize trips for surgeons to travel to Mexico and help other children with similar injuries. "Everybody jumped on it," he said. "I had to hide when I would go into the hospital because people wanted to get in on this."

His story is one of many triumphs — and a tragedy that he continues to dwell on many decades later. This week on Hidden Brain, we explore his story, and what it can tell us about how we view our roles in the world.

Further Reading:

Phil Tetlock's book, Expert Political Judgment: How Good Is It? How Can We Know?

Isaiah Berlin's original 1953 essay, The Hedgehog and the Fox, which revived the ancient Greek parable in the popular imagination.

More poems and proverbs by the Greek poet Archilochus.

This week's show was produced by Jenny Schmidt, and edited by Tara Boyle. Our team also includes Rhaina Cohen, Parth Shah, Laura Kwerel and Thomas Lu. Follow us on Twitter @hiddenbrain, and listen for our stories each week on your local public radio station.

Copyright 2020 NPR. To see more, visit https://www.npr.org.

Jennifer Schmidt is a senior producer for Hidden Brain. She is responsible for crafting the complex stories that are told on the show. She researches, writes, gathers field tape, and develops story structures. Some highlights of her work on Hidden Brain include episodes about the causes of the #MeToo movement, how diversity drives creativity, and the complex psychology of addiction.
Tara Boyle is the supervising producer of NPR's Hidden Brain. In this role, Boyle oversees the production of both the Hidden Brain radio show and podcast, providing editorial guidance and support to host Shankar Vedantam and the shows' producers. Boyle also coordinates Shankar's Hidden Brain segments on Morning Edition and other NPR shows, and oversees collaborations with partners both internal and external to NPR. Previously, Boyle spent a decade at WAMU, the NPR station in Washington, D.C. She has reported for The Boston Globe, and began her career in public radio at WBUR in Boston.
Shankar Vedantam is the host and creator of Hidden Brain. The Hidden Brain podcast receives more than three million downloads per week. The Hidden Brain radio show is distributed by NPR and featured on nearly 400 public radio stations around the United States.