I was reading Neil Simon’s The Star Spangled Girl last week on vacation.  It was one of his lesser plays, and although it was made into a movie, it was not that well received.  In the play, Andy and Norman are radicals who barely make a living working on their magazine, Fallout, which is dedicated to fighting “the system” in America. Sophie, a former Olympic swimmer, is an all-American, Southern girl who moves into the apartment next door:

Sophie:  All right, tell me.  Is there anything about this country you do like?

Andy:  I like almost everything about this country except people who like absolutely everything about this country.

Sophie:  Why don’t you answer mah question?

Andy:  Why don’t you question my answer?

Sophie, playing the athletic but not too bright midwestern neighbor, is a contrast to the bookish, subversive magazine writers whose criticisms of American culture have her up in arms.  She claims she doesn’t need to read past the titles of their articles to know what she needs to know about their magazine (as a blogger, I can certainly empathize with them).  Her naive patriotism rankles as much as her twangy accent.  Andy, co-founder of the magazine, has critical views of US policy and culture that are more nuanced and complex.  She is patriotic and confident, yet ill-informed; he is critical, yet more accurate, and yet holds a less confident view of things.  The play was inspired when Simon observed a disagreement between a liberal writer and a conservative woman.

I was also reading in Daniel Kahneman’s book Thinking, Fast and Slow.  In one chapter, he uses a concept by essayist Isaiah Berlin who contrasts two different types of thinkers: the hedgehog (not to be confused with our own Hedgehog) and the fox.

Hedgehogs “know one big thing” and have a theory about the world; they account for particular events within a coherent framework, bristle with impatience toward those who don’t see things their way, and are confident in their forecasts.  They are also especially reluctant to admit error.  For hedgehogs, a failed prediction is almost always “off only on timing” or “very nearly right.”  They are opinionated and clear.

This description sounded familiar in light of Greg Prince’s recent interview about Boyd K. Packer, a true porcupine, er, hedgehog.  “Not all truth is useful.” Truth is seen as primarily of value in how it is used or in action; truth that leads to inaction is counter-productive.  Sophie in the exchange above is a clearcut hedgehog.  She has a simple worldview, and she doesn’t allow for any questioning of it.  She simply doesn’t fathom that line of thinking; it’s a threat to be avoided.

Foxes, by contrast, are complex thinkers.  They don’t believe that one big thing drives the march of history . . . . Instead the foxes recognize that reality emerges from the interactions of many different agents and forces, including blind luck, often producing large and unpredictable outcomes.

Norman and Andy from the play are “fox” thinkers.  There is nothing so sacred that it can’t be discussed or questioned, and the only thing to fear is unchecked patriotism.  From Berlin’s essay, he cites several examples of writers and thinkers and where they fall in the two categories.

Berlin expands upon this idea to divide writers and thinkers into two categories: hedgehogs, who view the world through the lens of a single defining idea (examples given include Plato, Lucretius, Dante, Pascal, Hegel,Dostoevsky, Nietzsche, Ibsen, Proust, and Fernand Braudel) and foxes who draw on a wide variety of experiences and for whom the world cannot be boiled down to a single idea (examples given include Herodotus,Aristotle, Erasmus, Shakespeare, Montaigne, Molière, Goethe, Pushkin, Balzac, Joyce, Anderson).

Interestingly, those identified as “experts” are the most likely to become hedgehog thinkers, and as a result, their ability to forecast future trends was worse than non-specialists.  When polled on the probabilities of three different outcomes:

The results were devastating.  The experts performed worse than they would have if they had simply assigned equal probabilities to each of the three potential outcomes.

Why do experts and pundits often get it wrong?  Because their “theory” or worldview gives them overconfidence.  When people believe that they understand the past, they develop overconfidence in their ability to predict the future.  They create a coherent narrative.  And whenever a story is “coherent” it is always inaccurate because facts that contradict one’s story are simply not absorbed.  Kahneman’s book describes the principle of “WYSIATI” or “What You See Is All There Is.”  The human brain simply isn’t equipped to know what it doesn’t know or to see the gaps in its information.  It bridges those gaps to create coherent stories.  That’s one reason that our memories are often inaccurate; we confabulate to fill in the gaps.  Once you become aware of those gaps, your confidence in your world theory weakens.  The higher the confidence, the lower the accuracy.  This is just how our brains work.

Subjective confidence in a judgement is not a reasoned evaluation of the probability that this judgment is correct.  Confidence is a feeling, which reflects the coherence of the information and the cognitive ease of processing it.  It is wise to take admissions of uncertainty seriously, but declarations of high confidence mainly tell you that an individual has constructed a coherent story in his mind, not necessarily that the story is true.

Why then do we find high confidence compelling?  High confidence leads to action and is decisive.  We associate leadership with confidence because the leader’s confidence instills us with the trust to act. It’s easier to act when you have a simpler view of the future, a “vision” as we sometimes call it.  Biographer Joseph Ellis considered George Washington to be a class “hedgehog” thinker:

George Washington was an archetypal hedgehog. And the one big thing he knew was that America’s future as a nation lay to the West, in its development over the next century of a continental empire.

Another big fan of hedgehog thinking is James Collins, author of the well-loved business tome Good to Great.  Because his book is about how leaders can make their companies truly exceptional, he sees the value of single-mindedness.  This is reminiscent of the scriptural phrase “having an eye single” found in Luke, Matthew, 3 Nephi, Mormon and the D&C, including this passage in D&C 82:19:

Every man seeking the interest of his neighbor, and doing all things with an eye single to the glory of God.

If you have an eye single to the glory of God, you have a simple view, a single vision, a litmus test by which to base all decisions.  You are a hedgehog thinker, not a fox.  You are focused on one thing only, the glory of God.  This kind of thinking is also favored by those who equate doubt with inaction and faith with confidence, as in a favorite Mormon scripture, James 1:6:

But let him ask in faith, nothing wavering. For he that wavereth is like a wave of the sea driven with the wind and tossed.

So if your faith wavers, you are driven with the wind and tossed, you are indecisive, you don’t know which way to go, and you aren’t entitled to answers to prayer, according to James.  Maybe it’s not that you aren’t entitled to those answers, just that you won’t have the same confidence if you receive them. Confidence is a byproduct of less information, not more.  You lose the ability to see the tree once you become aware of the forest.  You slow down and don’t know which way to go.  If you keep your “eye single,” with blinders for any of the distractions around you, you retain the confidence to act.

But you are probably also wrong.  Your understanding of the world, the way things were in the past, the way they will unfold, is inaccurate.  The funny thing is that for pundits and hedgehogs, the idea that their theory is wrong is completely off the radar, even when they are proven wrong.  According to Philip Tetlock, psychologist at the University of Pennsylvania:

Experts resisted admitting that they had been wrong, and when they were compelled to admit error, they had a large collection of excuses:  they had been wrong only in their timing, an unforeseeable event had intervened, or they had been wrong but for the right reasons.  Experts are just human in the end.  They are dazzled by their own brilliance and hate to be wrong.  Experts are led astray not by what they  believe, but by how they think.

It’s not just narcissism at play.  Because being a hedgehog requires the suppression of doubt (being single-minded), only supporters are heard.  Naysayers are viewed as disloyal to the group and its leaders.  This phenomenon happens at church, in families, in countries, and in strong business cultures.  At Amex we used to refer to true believers as people who “bleed blue” in reference to the Blue Box.  From Kahneman’s book:

People can maintain an unshakable faith in any proposition, however absurd, when they are sustained by a community of like-minded believers.

If you don’t believe that, go to a State Fair.  And yet this single-minded vision is optimistic and can lead to greatness.  As Martin Seligman, the founder of positive psychology, put it:

I have yet to meet a successful scientist who lacks the ability to exaggerate the importance of what he or she is doing, and I believe that someone who lacks a delusional sense of significance will wilt in the face of repeated experiences of multiple small failures and rare successes.

And not only is self-delusion critical to perseverance, but it is also a competitive imperative.

Experts who acknowledge the full extent of their ignorance may expect to be replaced by more confident competitors, who are better able to gain the trust of clients.

The same holds true for all leaders, even if the confidence is subjective and the trust is misplaced.  You can’t sell what you don’t buy, and buying it often means ignoring the fact that what you are selling is flawed.  No product consistently matches its sales claims, except of course Diet Coke.

Of course, this is all just a theory, one of many I find interesting.

  • Are you a hedgehog thinker or a fox thinker?  Are these designations useful or an oversimplified parlor game?
  • Do fox thinkers think too much and act too little?  Are hedgehog thinkers better able to get things done?
  • Can people choose which kind of thinker they are or is this an innate preference?