The philosopher Isaiah Berlin originally proposed a (tongue-in-cheek) classification of people into "hedgehogs", who have a single big theory that explains everything and view the world in that light, and "foxes", who have a large number of smaller theories that they use to explain parts of the world. Later on, the psychologist Philip Tetlock found that people who were closer to the "fox" end of the spectrum tended to be better at predicting future events than the "hedgehogs".
In this essay, Venkat constructs an elaborate hypothesis of the kinds of belief structures that "foxes" and "hedgehogs" have and how they work, talking about how a belief can be grounded in a small number of fundamental elements (typical for hedgehogs) or in an intricate web of other beliefs (typical for foxes), classifying religions into foxy or hedgehogy, discussing the behavioral and epistemic strengths and weaknesses of each, and talking about the way that both cognitive styles may emerge from the need to compress information instead of storing everything. There's way too much for me to summarize or properly excerpt here, so I'll just quote a few things and encourage you to read it all.
"The basic distinction between foxes and hedgehogs is Archilocus’ line, the fox knows many things, the hedgehog knows one big thing. The connection to views and holds is this: many things refers to weak views.; one big thing refers to strong views. We’ll get to views and why this connection holds in a minute, but let’s take a quick look at strong and weak holds, about which Archilocus’ has nothing explicit to say. There is an implicit assertion in the definition though.
"To get a hedgehog to change his/her mind, you clearly have to offer one big idea that is more powerful than the one big idea they already hold. To the extent that their incumbent big idea has a unity based on ideological consistency rather than logical consistency (i.e., it is a religion rather than an axiomatic theory), you have to effect a religious conversion of sorts. The hedgehog’s views are lightly held in the sense of being dependent on only a few core or axiomatic beliefs. Only a few key assumptions anchor the big idea. That is the whole point of seeking consistency of any sort: to reduce the number of unjustified beliefs in your thinking to the minimum necessary.
"To get a fox to change his or her mind on the other hand, you have to undermine an individual belief in multiple ways and in multiple places, since chances are, any idea a fox holds is anchored by multiple instances in multiple domains, connected via a web of metaphors, analogies and narratives. To get a fox to change his or her mind in extensive ways, you have to painstakingly undermine every fragmentary belief he or she holds, in multiple domains. There is no core you can attack and undermine. There is not much coherence you can exploit, and few axioms that you can undermine to collapse an entire edifice of beliefs efficiently. Any such collapses you can trigger will tend to be shallow, localized and contained. The fox’s beliefs are strongly held because there is no center, little reliance on foundational beliefs and many anchors. Their thinking is hard to pin down to any one set of axioms, and therefore hard to undermine.
"This means that it is actually easier to change a hedgehog’s mind wholesale: pick the right few foundational beliefs to challenge or undermine, and you can convert a hedgehog overnight. It is the reason the most fervent true believers in a religion are the new converts. It is the reason the most strident atheists are the once-religious. Hedgehogs whose Big Ideas are undermined through betrayal by idols can turn into powerful enemies overnight." [...]
"A strong view is strong in two senses of the word.
"1. It is powerful. Because it says so much, and so literally, to the extent that it is true or unfalsifiable, it is very useful. A detailed and literal religiosity is a fully featured operating system for a lifestyle. A vague and figurative spirituality may be more defensible in debates with atheists, but offers very little by way of practical prescriptions for life. A detailed prediction about the future of an industry, with predictions about individual companies down to the future behavior of their stocks, is something you can bet money on. A loose and figurative prediction at best allows you to quickly interpret events as they unfold in detail.
2. It is tedious to undermine even though it is lightly held. A strong view requires an opponent to first expertly analyze the entire belief complex and identify its most fundamental elements, and then figure out a falsification that operates within the justification model accepted by the believer. This second point is complex. You cannot undermine a belief except by operating within the justification model the believer uses to interpret it. A strong view can only be undermined by hanging it by its own petard, through local expertise." [...]
"Where does [the fox prediction advantage], let’s call it the Tetlock edge, come from? I have a speculative answer.
"It comes from eschewing abstraction and preferring the unreliable world of System 1 tools: metaphor, analogy and narrative; tools that all depend on pattern recognition of one sort or the other, rather than classification into clean schema. Fox brains are in effect constantly doing meta-analyses with unstructured ensembles, rather than projecting from abstract models.
"That’s where the advantage comes from: eschewing abstraction.
"Abstraction creates meta-knowledge via inductive generalization, and can grow into doctrinaire world views. The way this happens is that you try to formalize the interdependencies among all your generalized beliefs. Your one big idea as a hedgehog is an idea that covers everything, the whole T-box, so to speak. Abstraction provides you with ways to compute beliefs and actions in domains you haven’t even encountered yet, thereby coloring your judgment of the novel before the fact.
"Pattern recognition creates meta-knowledge through linkages among weak views in multiple domains. The many things you know start getting densely connected in a messy web of ad hoc associations. Your collection of little ideas, densely connected, does not cover everything, since there are fewer abstractions. So you can only form beliefs about new domains once you encounter some data about them (which means you have an inclusion bias). And you cannot act decisively in those domains, since you lack strong metanorms. This means pattern recognition leaves you with a fundamentally more open mind (or less strongly colored preconceptions about what you do not yet know).
"The way you slowly gain a Tetlock advantage, if you live long enough to collect a lot of examples and a very densely connected mind full of little ideas, is as follows: The more you see instances of a belief in various guises, the better you get at recognizing new instances. This is because the chances that a new instance will be recognizable close to an existing instance in your collection increases, and also because patterns color the unknown less strongly than abstractions.
"As you age, your mind becomes a vessel for accumulating a growing global context to aid in the appreciation of novelty.
"Abstraction offers you a satisfyingly consistent and clean world view, but since you generally stop collecting new instances (and might even discard ones you have) once you have enough to form an abstract belief through inductive generalization, it is harder to make any real use of new information as it comes in. There is already a strongly colored opinion in place and guides to action that don’t rely on knowing things. Your abstractions also accumulate metanorms, and give you an increasing array of reasons to not include new information in your world view. [...]
"Foxes are fundamentally Big Data native people. They operate on the assumption that it is cheaper to store new information than to decide what to do with it. Hedgehogs are fundamentally not Big Data native. If they can’t structure it, they can’t store it, and have to throw it away. If they can structure it with an abstraction, they don’t need to store most of it. Only a few critical details to fit the Procrustean bed of their abstraction.
"Because foxes resist the temptation of abstraction (and therefore the temptation to throw away examples of patterns once an inductive generalization and/or metanorm has been arrived at, or stop collecting), they slowly gains an advantage over time, as the data accumulates: the Tetlock edge.
"We can restate the Archilocus definition in a geeky way: The fox has one big, unstructured dataset, the hedgehog has many small structured datasets.
"But this takes a long time and a lot of stamp collecting, and foxes have to learn to survive in the meantime. Young foxes can be particularly intimidated by old hedgehogs, since the latter are likely to have accumulated more data in absolute terms. [...]
"Ultimately, the fox-hedgehog duality is a result of bounded rationality. You only have so much room in your head. You have to choose where to put in a lot of detail."
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