Are You A Fox Or A Hedgehog? The Greek poet Archilochus wrote that "the fox knows many things, but the hedgehog knows one big thing." This week, we'll use the metaphor of the fox and the hedgehog as a way to understand the differences between tacticians and big-picture thinkers. We'll explore the story of a pioneering surgeon whose hedgehog tendencies led him to great triumphs, and a heartbreaking tragedy. This episode first aired in May 2017.
NPR logo

The Fox And The Hedgehog: A Story of Triumphs and Tragedy

  • Download
  • <iframe src="https://www.npr.org/player/embed/739502013/739506934" width="100%" height="290" frameborder="0" scrolling="no" title="NPR embedded audio player">
  • Transcript
The Fox And The Hedgehog: A Story of Triumphs and Tragedy

The Fox And The Hedgehog: A Story of Triumphs and Tragedy

The Fox And The Hedgehog: A Story of Triumphs and Tragedy

  • Download
  • <iframe src="https://www.npr.org/player/embed/739502013/739506934" 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

toggle caption
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 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 named Don Laub, a young surgeon who was eager to make his mark. In his words, Don 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 hide caption

toggle caption
Creative Commons

One day, he 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.

Additional Resources:

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.