The Russian born, British philosopher and essayist, Sir Isaiah Berlin wrote an essay on Tolstoy’s view of history which he titled The Hedgehog and the Fox. The title comes from a fragment attributed to the Greek poet, Archilochus, who purportedly wrote, “The fox knows many things but the hedgehog knows one big thing”. The fox, when threatened, because of the breadth of its intelligence, can weigh up the situation and devise a strategy for escape. The hedgehog knows only one strategy. When threatened, it rolls itself in a ball with all its erect spines forming an effective defence from its enemies. Berlin used the analogy to divide intellectuals into two similar camps. Firstly there were those who viewed the world through the lense of a single idea (the hedgehogs) and those who were able to observe the world through the vantage point of many ideas (the foxes). He happily placed Tolstoy in the latter category.
The more we get to know about neural processing in the brain the more complex the processes seem to be. When it comes to decision making we have commonly thought it was a straight forward rational process. We learn decision trees, fish-bone diagrams and the powerful processes devised by Kepner Tregoe. This is all sensible, rational, right-brain stuff. And by and large for certain classes of problems it works.
Ap Dijksterhuis, from the University of Amsterdam, who researches decision making processes, has this to say:
“It is a widely held belief that people should consciously think about the decisions they make. When faced with decisions such as whether to buy a house or not or whether to switch jobs or not, thorough conscious contemplation is generally expected to lead to the best decisions. I would like to challenge this notion. Although consciousness can be said to be “smart” and rational, it is also of very limited capacity. This means that when making decisions about rather complex, multifaceted issues, conscious thought can be maladaptive and lead to poor decisions. This conclusion is less sobering than it may seem, because it does not mean that people are poor decision makers: “Unconscious thought” (i.e., chewing on a problem without directed conscious thought) can lead to very sound decisions.”
Dijksterhuis believes that any problem with more than four distinct variables overwhelms the rational brain. Others believe that a person can consciously process somewhere between five and nine variables to arrive at a decision. With practice this range can be slightly expanded. However, the rationalising part of our brain, the pre-frontal cortex seems quite limited in this regard.
The most popular theories about decision-making view the process as a conflict between feelings and rationality. We emphasise rationality because we believe that is what separates us from other animals.
Plato had a different take on this. He liked to imagine the mind as a chariot pulled by two horses. The rational brain, he said is the charioteer; it holds the reins and decides where the horses run. If the horses get out of control the charioteer just needs to take out his whip and reassert authority. The two horses were, of course, reason and emotion.
In the twentieth century Freud proposed a similar model. He believed that at the centre of the mind was the id. From the id emanated our crude desires and impulses. In contrast was the ego which represented the conscious self and rationality. He used a similar metaphor to Plato.
Freud wrote, “One might compare the relations of the ego to the id with that between a rider and his horse. The horse provides the locomotive energy, and the rider has the prerogative of determining the goal and of guiding the movements of his powerful mount towards it,”
Antonio Damasio is a Portuguese Professor of Neurosurgery living in the United States. He tells of a patient whose brain was altered by the removal of a small tumour from the frontal lobe. The patient’s IQ was not affected by the operation but afterwards he lost his capacity to make decisions. This proved disastrous to his ability to live a normal life. He lost his job, was divorced by his wife and although motivated to start a number of businesses fell into bankruptcy. Damasio’s testing of the unfortunate man resulted in his coming to the conclusion that his decision making ability was compromised not through any lack of intelligence but because the removal of the tumour had impaired his ability to feel the normal range of human emotions. And these, he concluded, were important for decision making.
Conventional wisdom about brain structure here misleads us. As the human brain evolved over the eons it kept adding new brain components over older ones. Finally, in relatively recent evolutionary history the cortex capped all the previous brain components. It seems to have been the rapid growth of the cortex and in particular the frontal lobes, that enabled the development of much of the behaviours and characteristics that separate us from other animals. Many of us associate the cortex with human rationality and reason. But it is far more than that. The orbitofrontal cortex (OFC) plays a large role of integrating the emotional outputs of the older brain components into our stream of conscious thought. (This was the part of the brain damaged by the tumour removal from the subject of Damasio’s study above.)
The OFC is markedly larger in human brains than in other primates. So then, by its architecture, humans have inherited a brain that, rather than protecting the decision making process from the unwanted impacts of emotions seeks to integrate emotion and reason into the process.
Dijksterhuis (mentioned earlier) carried out research on shoppers purchasing furniture where there were a large range of options. He found that the longer people spent analysing their options, the less satisfied they were with their purchases. For this class of decision, shoppers did best when they didn’t think at all and just listened to their emotional brain! (I am sure this will prove an issue of fierce debate among some couples!)
The Neuroscientist, writer and Rhodes Scholar, Jonah Lehrer maintains that we need different strategies for different classes of decisions. By and large simpler problems are best dealt with using rational processes. Solution to novel problems also benefit from the application of reason. But in general, and particularly so for problems of complexity, we benefit from the emotional as well as the rational inputs of our minds when making decisions.
The evidence suggests that the one big idea, rational decision making, whilst effective in certain situations is not as generally effective as a broader approach involving both rationality and the input of emotional responses. Not surprisingly, using Isaiah Berlin’s metaphor, whilst the hedgehog’s strategy sometimes works, the fox’s broader repertoire of responses allows him to frame a more appropriate response tailored to the circumstances. Foxes then, outperform hedgehogs over a spectrum of decision making situations.