Who is more successful? The Fox or the Hedgehog?

I tout the superiority of Foxes on this Blog, but if I am such a Fox, where is the data to support these claims?

Hedgehogs are everywhere. As experts in the media. In Politics. Hosting their own TV shows. An entire news network, ironically called “Fox News” is full of Hedgehogs. It would seem that Hedgehogs have Foxes beaten pretty badly. On top of it all, prominent business authors like Jim Collins have popularized ideas like the “Hedgehog Concept,” which states that to be successful, Entrepreneurs and leaders need to emulate the Hedgehog in their single-minded pursuit of a goal.

But Jim Collins gets this concept wrong and confuses vision and resiliency with dogged stubbornness. Yes, a successful leader needs to be single-minded in their pursuit of their vision. But stubbornly following a vision did not work out well for Blackberry or Polaroid. Hedgehogs are more likely to hang on to the past, vice disrupt the future.  

Foxes are more likely to be visionary, because they are not tied to a single philosophy or ideology – they are able see what the world can be.

A very successful Hedgehog and a very successful Fox.


Hedgehogs make great Experts

Hedgehogs often “win” TV debates, because they have a simple, easily communicated message. They are focused on a soundbite and are undeterred by ambiguity or conflicting facts. They see the world through a single lens: “Tax cuts are the answer.”, “Government spending is the answer.”..they live in a world where a simple, single narrative or principle provides all the answers….vagaries and contradictions be damned.

Hedgehogs don’t see themselves as Hedgehogs, because their view of the world doesn’t allow that much variation. Instead a Hedgehog sees the world as right and wrong – they are right and everyone else is wrong. All information and data that they come across is then either rejected or adapted in order to fit their world view.

Foxes, on the other hand, look at the environment and determine the best solution based on the best data available at the time.

Unfortunately for society, Hedgehogs sound great as political or business commentators with their simple 30-second sound bites…and thus make excellent consultants, pundits and politicians and are often considered “experts.”

The Failure of Experts

But again, I am just postulating. If Hedgehogs – the “experts” – are so terrible, then why are they considered experts and their opinion prized by the media? Where is the evidence to back up these claims?

There is a ton of anecdotal evidence. Experts of all types have consistently failed to predict major world events –  Sept. 11th, the collapse of the Soviet Union, the Iranian Revolution, the Arab Spring, the results of Operation Iraqi Freedom and numerous other world events have all taken experts in these fields by surprise….let’s not forget the 2008 financial crisis.

Another great example is the 2012 US Presidential Election. Republican pundits using their expert political judgement were predicting a land-slide victory for Mitt Romney before the election and almost every one of their predictions was wrong. Mean while Nate Silver called 50 out of 50 states correctly by avoiding partisan politics and simply analyzing poll data.

But again, the above evidence is just anecdotal. Maybe Nate Silver just got lucky.

Luckily for Foxes, the world has Philip Tetlock.

Dr. Tetlock has been studying expert decision making for years and has some of the bestrides of data on the subject that anyone can ask for. Recently his Good Judgement Project has shown that expert intelligence analysts with access to troves of classified information are terrible at making predictions and can be consistently beaten by average people whose only access to information on world events is Google.

Tetlock’s greatest work is his book – “Expert Political Judgement.” In this book, Tetlock contends that the Fox–the thinker who knows many little things, draws from an eclectic array of traditions, and is better able to improvise in response to changing events–is more successful in predicting the future than the Hedgehog, who knows one big thing, toils devotedly within one tradition, and imposes formulaic solutions on ill-defined problems. He notes a perversely inverse relationship between the best scientific indicators of good judgement and the qualities that the media most prizes in pundits–the narrow-minded determination required to prevail in ideological combat.

All of Tetlock’s studies brought him to at least two important conclusions.

First, if we value better predictions, we should keep score of how accurate predictions turn out to be – creating concrete feedback.

Expert Political Judgement by Philip E. Tetlock

Expert Political Judgement by Philip E. Tetlock

And, if you take a large crowd of different people with access to different information and pool their predictions, you will be in much better shape than if you rely on a single very smart person, or even a small group of very smart people.

“The wisdom of crowds is a very important part of this project, and it’s an important driver of accuracy,” – Philip Tetlock

The Hedgehogs of the world – who make prediction their business–people who appear as experts on television, get quoted in newspaper articles, advise governments and businesses and participate in punditry roundtables–are no better than you or me. But, when they’re wrong, very rarely are they held accountable, and even less rarely do they admit it.

So, while Hedgehogs continue to be praised by a media with severe amnesia, we should all demand better. Turn off the 24hr news networks. Create better insights with data. Share and follow Foxes in the media.

Be a Fox. Back a Fox. Make a Difference.



About the author

Abraham Kamarck

Abraham specializes in innovation, new product development, emerging markets, conflict zones, social marketing, for-profit / non-profit hybrids and writing long bios. After an eight-year career as a Naval Aviator, Abraham lived and worked as an entrepreneur in many different emerging and frontier markets. He launched multiple businesses in difficult environments; raised debt and equity capital for SMEs in Africa and China; structured angel investment funds/groups; and built brands and social media followings...all while dragging his family around the globe. After eight years abroad, he has now settled into the Washington DC metro area.

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