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Read and learn with the mind of the Fox

It’s impossible to keep up with the loads of articles and posts passing by on your newsletters and social media feeds. What do you pick out to read? Who do you tend to believe? Good to know there are Hedgehogs and Foxes. One gets the stage, the other makes more sense…

Hedgehogs and Foxes

‘A chimpanzee throwing darts.’ That’s basically the conclusion of Wharton professor Philip Tetlock’s after decades of research about the accuracy of predictions of experts. Of course, some experts predict better than others. Prediction accuracy, as Tetlock showed, has a lot to with style.

Tetlock distinguished two types of experts. The first type he called ‘Hedgehogs’. Hedgehogs tends to organise their thinking around big ideas. They are usually very confident and tend to polarize. Things are either ‘certain’, or ‘impossible’, ‘guaranteed’ or ‘no way’. Hedgehogs are reluctant to change their minds even when their predictions have clearly failed.

The second type Tetlock called ‘Foxes’. Foxes collect as much information from as many sources as they can. They talk about possibilities and probabilities, use words like ‘might’ and ‘likely’. They find it easier to admit it when they are wrong.

Of course, Foxes are more accurate in their predictions. But Hedgehogs get the stage.

The algorithm’s flywheel

It seems safe to generalize Tetlock’s findings to what we see passing by in the commercial domain. The opinions and comments we read every day on LinkedIn and Twitter are often black or white: the new ad, new strategy or new whatever seems to be either brilliant or dumb, beautiful or hideous, phenomenal or disastrous. It’s the drama that drives attention. And thus, more likes and comments.

It is also the drama that kicks the algorithm’s flywheel: more people will see the comment or article and will generate more comments and views. Facebook has built its entire business model around this dynamic. The result is that it is more likely to see the Hedgehog posts full of drama and polarization than the more nuanced Fox-like posts. It’s the latter, however, that is likely to correspond more with what’s happening in the real world.

Golden tickets and death spirals

Consultancy firms talk like Hedgehogs too. They use superlatives that sound very alluring. Brands, however, usually don’t get ‘golden tickets’ to increase sales, get tangled up into ‘death spirals’ or realize ‘exponential growth’. Most innovations are not ‘game changers’ or invoke a ‘paradigm shift’. Finding some variable that correlates with sales doesn’t mean you have ‘cracked the code’ for sustainable success.

Being sceptical as a basic attitude will help. Spot the Hedgehogs. And think and act with the mind of the Fox. The chance you will be throwing darts like a chimpanzee goes down considerably.

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