The Fox and the Hedgehog | Hidden Brain The parable of the fox and the hedgehog tells us that there are some who are guided by one big idea. That's the story of Don Laub, a surgeon whose single-mindedness was his triumph, and his downfall.
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The Fox And The Hedgehog: The Triumphs And Perils Of Going Big

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

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

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

  • Download
  • <iframe src="https://www.npr.org/player/embed/528041635/554093154" width="100%" height="290" frameborder="0" scrolling="no" title="NPR embedded audio player">
  • Transcript

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 hide caption

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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.

Renee Klahr

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 argues it's 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."

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.

The Hidden Brain Podcast is hosted by Shankar Vedantam and produced by Maggie Penman, Jennifer Schmidt, Renee Klahr, and Rhaina Cohen. Our supervising producer is Tara Boyle. Follow us on Twitter @hiddenbrain, and listen for our stories each week on your local public radio station.