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Peter Mouncey Blog

Market Researchers: Foxes or Hedgehogs? 
Discussion of characteristics valuable to MR


Ray Poynter reviewed Nate Silver’s ‘The Signal and the Noise’ (Penguin 2012) in the latest issue of IJMR (Vol.55/6), but one point that particularly caught my attention when reading Silver’s book was his references to the work of Philip Tetlock exploring the world of prediction.

Tetlock classified experts on a cognitive style spectrum, based on their responses in a personality test survey. He christened those at one end of this spectrum as ‘Hedgehogs’, and those at the other end, ‘Foxes’: ‘The fox knows many little things, but the hedgehog knows one big thing’ (attributed to the Greek poet Archilochus), borrowed by Isiah Berlin for the title for his essay on Leo Tolstoy ‘The hedgehog and the Fox’.

Hedgehogs believe in big ideas; Foxes ‘believe in a plethora of little ideas and in taking a multitude of approaches to a problem’. They can more easily deal with nuance, uncertainty, complexity and dissenting opinions.

Silver describes the thought characteristics of these two ‘animals’ in detail. As you might expect, Foxes are multidisciplinary, but Hedgehogs are more specialised. They may be sceptical about the opinions of outsiders. Foxes are adaptable, but Hedgehogs are stalwarts, sticking to their ideas, using new information to refine their view.

Hedgehogs are stubborn creatures, but Foxes are more likely to be self-critical, and whereas Hedgehogs seek order, Foxes thrive on complexity. However, it is the Hedgehog who displays confidence in their predictions, whereas the Fox is more cautious and provides a probabilistic based forecast.

Finally, the Fox relies more on observation than theory, compared with the ideological stance of the Hedgehog. Not surprisingly, Tetlock discovered that Foxes produced more accurate forecasts than Hedgehogs.

As Silver describes, Foxes are:quicker to recognise how noisy the data can be, and are less inclined to chase false signals. They know more about what they don’t know.’

So are market researchers more likely to be Fox-like or, do we tend to exhibit Hedgehog characteristics? In the past, the sector has been criticised for being technique orientated (specialists), survey data focussed (order-seeking, stalwart & confident) and not looking at the bigger picture or the implications of the findings for the client’s strategy– overall, a more Hedgehog-like mentality.

However, the world of ‘Big data’ seems to need a foxy approach if market researchers are to help clients with their ‘infobesity’ challenge – it is messy, complex, uncertain and requires adaptability and a multidisciplinary approach to methodologies.

Silver believes that ‘too much information can be a bad thing in the hands of a hedgehog’ – bad news if researchers still follow the old model.

It seems to me we need more Foxes than Hedgehogs in the data-driven world of today. If you think you’re rather Hedgehog-like, can you learn to be as cunning as a Fox? As Silver concludes, Foxes are more capable of ‘evaluating a wide variety of information without abusing it….The foxy forecaster recognises the limitations that human judgement imposes in predicting the world’s course. Knowing those limits can help her to get a few more predictions right’.

All of this, and more, you will find in Chapter 2 ‘Are you smarter than a television pundit?’ of Silver’s book.

Read Ray Poynter’s book review here (MRS member restrictions apply)

Do you agree? Are you a fox or a hedgehog? Do you think they complement each other in the MR world? I welcome your thoughts below.

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