Thinking Like a Fox

Peter Salovey, President of Yale University
Saturday, August 26, 2017
Yale College Opening Assembly Address, Class of 2021

Good morning and welcome—to my colleagues here on stage, to the family members who are with us today, and most of all, to the Class of 2021! And a special shout-out to Marvin Chun, beginning his first year as the new dean of Yale College. 

A few years ago, I helped a friend—a member of the Yale College Class of 1982, in fact—teach a Yale College seminar called “Great Big Ideas.” Each week, students in the seminar considered a “big idea” from a different field of study. For homework, they watched video lectures delivered by various experts and read primary sources. Then they came to class ready to debate each week’s “big idea.” By the end of the course, they had become conversant in major debates and questions in art history, political philosophy, evolutionary biology, and other fields. My friend described the educational impact of the course as “a mile wide and an inch deep.”

I was thinking about Great Big Ideas over the summer. Reflecting on the goal for the course reminded me of the story of the fox and the hedgehog. Now, this is a distinction attributed to Archilochus, the seventh century B.C. Greek poet and warrior, who said, “a fox knows many things, but a hedgehog one important thing.” When threatened, the fox remains flexible, coming up with a clever way to deal with that particular matter. The hedgehog, however, responds the same way to every threat: it rolls up into a ball. The fox is wily and resilient. The hedgehog consistent but inflexible.

The philosopher Isaiah Berlin popularized this distinction in a 1953 essay.[1] Berlin described the hedgehog as a thinker who sees the world through a single, grand idea—a focused lens. Someone like Karl Marx or Ayn Rand might be considered a hedgehog. The fox, on the other hand, becomes knowledgeable about many different things. It draws on a multitude of ideas and experiences depending on the situation or issue at hand. Perhaps Confucius and Aristotle are best described as foxes.

As Berlin says, “there exists a great chasm between those, on one side, who relate everything to a single vision…a single, universal organizing principle”—the hedgehogs—and “those who pursue many ends, often unrelated and even contradictory, connected, if at all, in some de facto way.” These are the foxes.

This dichotomy is an over-simplification, as Berlin himself recognized. I am reminded of the joke about there being two kinds of psychologists: those who believe that humanity can be divided into two types of people, and those who do not. Yet the story of the fox and the hedgehog may help you today, right now, as you consider how to approach your time at Yale.

Your education in Yale College will expose you to some grand ideas that may seem compelling as unifying life philosophies. You will learn about and from some brilliant hedgehogs and brilliant foxes. But at this stage of your education, I want to urge you to emulate the fox. As inspired as you might be by a single idea or way of looking at the world, I suggest that you entertain many different ways of thinking and consider various points of view. Try them all on; see what fits you best.

The beauty of a liberal arts education—the education Yale College offers—is that it liberates you from having to pursue a narrow, vocationally-oriented program of study. I hope you will take advantage of—and enjoy—this intellectual freedom. You will be able to choose from a wide variety of courses, learning about how people in many different fields think and understand the world. Your professors will introduce you to a panoply of ideas and ask you to think critically about all of them. You will be expected to question conventional orthodoxies rather than subscribe to a single view of the world. This work will be challenging—have no doubt—but it will also be exhilarating and, yes, liberating.

There will be plenty of time later to hone your focus, to specialize and develop your expertise. Perhaps you will decide to pursue a doctorate or attend professional school. And there may even be times here at Yale when you will delve deeply into a certain topic for a paper or a project. When I received my graduate education here at Yale, for example, there were times when I had to be a hedgehog. Hedgehogs, too, have many fine qualities.

But over the years, I have loved seeing generations of Yale College students embrace the opportunity to think broadly and study widely. You also will develop as flexible thinkers and clear communicators. These foxlike attributes will serve you well no matter what you do after graduation.

In fact, there are good reasons to believe that learning to think like a fox may pay important dividends. As many of you know, I am a psychologist. My research and teaching have been focused in the field of social psychology. And there is a social psychologist named Philip Tetlock at the University of Pennsylvania who has studied the ability of foxes versus hedgehogs—the human kind—to predict and prepare for the future. (Tetlock completed his doctoral work here in Yale’s psychology department, by the way.)

Tetlock’s research is focused on political judgment—the accuracy with which politicians, experts, pundits, and others predict outcomes in the world and how various actions might affect those outcomes. So, for example, would a hardline foreign policy by the United States with respect to North Korea weaken Chairman Kim’s iron-clad grip on that country? Yes or no? Will President Assad’s regime in Syria fall in the next year? Yes or no?

Tetlock studied 284 prognosticators, experts who are paid to offer answers to questions in which they must predict the future about various world events. He analyzed 82,361 probability estimates made by these individuals in response to 27,450 forecasting questions, studying as well how they came to these judgments, how they reacted when they were wrong, and whether they revised their forecasts in response to new evidence.[2]

He found that specialists in making predictions about such situations are about as accurate as you or I would be. Consider that: highly trained, well-paid experts are no more likely to be correct when predicting future events than ordinary people. Well-established talking heads are worst of all. They often stubbornly and overconfidently adhere to their original theories—the ideas most associated with them—even in the face of overwhelming evidence that they are wrong. Like hedgehogs, they stick with the point of view that made them famous and are dismissive of new information that contradicts their beliefs.

However, Tetlock did find some individuals who were better at predicting the future. As he describes them, these are “thinkers who know many small things (tricks of their trade).” They “are skeptical of grand schemes,” and they are willing to “stitch…together diverse sources of information.” Perhaps most important, they are not overly confident in “their own forecasting prowess….”[3] In other words, they are humble, critical, well-informed, and flexible thinkers; in short, they are foxes. Foxes are the best prognosticators.

So, what does the fox say? (I leave it to you to explain that contemporary cultural reference to your parents.) The fox says, “I want to listen carefully, engage, explore, use my natural curiosity, and perhaps—in the end—outwit the others!” Foxes don’t get information only from sources with which they agree. When confronted by contrary ideas, the fox says, “bring it on.” Foxes are resilient. And they not only respond better to challenges—they may even be able to predict what challenges they will face down the road better than their hedgehog friends.

All around us, we are surrounded by foxes who have shaped our lives and our world. In the last few days, some of you moved into one of Yale’s two new residential colleges, Pauli Murray or Benjamin Franklin. I am thrilled that we can offer a Yale College education to 15 percent more students in each cohort, starting this year with the Class of 2021. It is amazing how lovely and “Yale-like” the new colleges are; yes, you can still create Gothic architecture in 2017. Others of you are the first to live as freshmen in Grace Hopper College; you also are part of something new and exciting. Benjamin Franklin, Pauli Murray, and Grace Hopper—our three new college namesakes—share some common attributes. All three were curious individuals who never stopped learning new things. And all of them were exemplary foxes.

It is probably obvious to you that Ben Franklin had a foxlike intellect, which he drew upon as an inventor, statesman, and writer. His response to seemingly insurmountable challenges? Invent something. And so Franklin, witnessing the destructive power of electricity, develops the lightening rod; has difficulty seeing both near and far in middle age and so invents bifocals; needs a source of indoor heating less smoky than a fireplace and therefore builds what we now call the Franklin stove. And I don’t even want to know what problem he was trying to solve when he invented the flexible catheter!

As a diplomat, Franklin’s contributions to international relations were characterized less by ideology (the hedgehog’s approach) and more by flexible statesmanship (a foxlike strategy). He gained the support of France for the cause of American independence by articulating Enlightenment ideas to an appreciative audience, endearing himself and his insights to his French counterparts. Moreover, Franklin was perfectly willing to change his mind, as evidenced by his embrace of the abolitionist cause later in his life.

Two centuries hence, Pauli Murray arrived at Yale to complete a doctorate in law. By this point she was already an accomplished attorney and a civil rights pioneer. While Murray was at Yale, her friend Eleanor Roosevelt tapped her to serve on the President’s Commission on the Status of Women. It was during this time that Murray developed the novel approach of using the 14th Amendment to combat sex discrimination, doing the research to support her ideas right here in Sterling Library. Legal scholars up until that time had viewed this amendment as providing due process and equal protection under the law regardless of race, religion, or heritage, but Murray saw in it another path for the advancement of civil rights. A short time later, while working on her thesis in New Haven, Murray wrote a memorandum that helped ensure the inclusion of protections on the basis of sex in the Civil Rights Act of 1964.

Pauli Murray was many things: a poet and writer, an attorney and legal scholar, an advocate for racial justice, and one of the founders of the National Organization for Women. She never stopped learning or trying new things. At the age of 62, she entered General Theological Seminary in New York and three years later became the first African American woman to be ordained as an Episcopal priest. Throughout her life, she listened, learned, and adapted to new challenges with astonishing success.

Finally, Rear Admiral Grace Hopper epitomizes the fox’s flexible intellect. She received her Ph.D. in mathematics from Yale, and after Pearl Harbor, she enlisted in the Navy, where she was assigned to work on one of the world’s first computers. Although her preparation in mathematics was important, Hopper had to think beyond what she had learned in school. Yale had not taught her to be a computer scientist—the profession didn’t even exist yet—but she had learned to think and solve problems. Hopper loved to say, “The most damaging words in the English language are, ‘It’s always been done that way.’” So, a lifelong maverick, Grace Hopper relied on her curiosity and her willingness to take risks, and in the process, she transformed the way we use computers, influencing all our lives.

Members of the Class of 2021: I am proud and delighted that you will be able to pursue an education here at Yale. Like Franklin, Murray, Hopper, and a host of other foxes, you will develop your intellect in broad and flexible ways. You will learn to be careful thinkers, suspicious of easy answers and received wisdom. You will hone these skills so you may work effectively with others and—in the words of Yale’s mission statement—“[improve] the world today and for future generations….” I know that you will experience great pleasure in becoming foxes yourselves.

Welcome to Yale!

[1] Berlin, I. (1953). The hedgehog and the fox: An essay on Tolstoy’s view of history. London: Weidenfeld & Nicolson.

[2] Tetlock, P.E. (2005). Expert political judgment: How good is it? How can we know? Princeton, NJ: Princeton University Press.

[3] Tetlock, P.E. (2005), pp. 73-75. Also quoted by Menand, L. (2005, December 5). Everybody’s an expert: Putting predictions to the test. The New Yorker.