Hedgehog’s Dilemma


The hedgehog’s dilemma, or sometimes the porcupine dilemma, is an analogy about the challenges of human intimacy. It describes a situation in which a group of hedgehogs all seek to become close to one another in order to share heat during cold weather. They must remain apart, however, as they cannot avoid hurting one another with their sharp quills. Though they all share the intention of a close reciprocal relationship, this may not occur for reasons they cannot avoid.

Both Arthur Schopenhauer and Sigmund Freud have used this situation to describe what they feel is the state of individual in relation to others. The hedgehog’s dilemma suggests that despite goodwill, human intimacy cannot occur without substantial mutual harm, and what results is cautious behavior and weak relationships. With the hedgehog’s dilemma, one is recommended to use moderation in affairs with others both because of self-interest, as well as out of consideration for others. The hedgehog’s dilemma is used to justify or explain introversion and isolationism.



[edit] Schopenhauer

The concept originates from German philosopher Arthur Schopenhauer‘s Parerga und Paralipomena, Volume II, Chapter XXXI, Section 396.[1] In his English translation, E.F.J. Payne translates the German “Stachelschweine” as “porcupines.” Schopenhauer’s parable describes a number of hedgehogs who need to huddle together for warmth and who struggle to find the optimal distance where they may feel sufficiently warm without hurting one another. The hedgehogs have to sacrifice warmth for comfort. Schopenhauer draws the conclusion that, if someone has enough internal warmth, they can avoid society and the giving and receiving of psychological discomfort that results from social interaction.

[edit] Freud

It entered the realm of psychology after the tale was discovered and adopted by Sigmund Freud. Schopenhauer’s tale was quoted by Freud in a footnote to his 1921 essay Group Psychology and the Analysis of the Ego. Freud stated that his trip to the United States in 1919 was because: “I am going to the USA to catch sight of a wild porcupine and to give some lectures.”[2]

[edit] Social psychological research

The dilemma has received empirical attention within the contemporary psychological sciences. Jon Maner and his colleagues (Nathan DeWall, Roy Baumeister, and Mark Schaller) referred to Schopenhauer‘s “porcupine problem” when interpreting results from experiments examining how people respond to ostracism and other forms of social rejection.[3] Their results revealed that, for people who are chronically anxious, the experience of rejection led people to be relatively anti-social; but among people with more optimistic dispositions, the experience of rejection led to intensified efforts to get close to others. They concluded,

This last point is worth remembering when one considers the answer that Schopenhauer himself supplied to the porcupine problem. Schopenhauer suggested that people ultimately feel compelled to retain a safe distance from each other. “By this arrangement,” he wrote, “the mutual need for warmth is only very moderately satisfied; but then people do not get pricked” (1851/1964, p. 226). Of course, Schopenhauer was known for his sour temperament – “It is hard to find in his life evidences of any virtue except kindness to animals… In all other respects he was completely selfish” (Russell, 1945, p. 758) – and his philosophy was famous for its pessimism.[4]

[edit] Cultural references

In Qian Zhongshu‘s novel Fortress Besieged, a character explicitly deliberates about the dilemma.

The hedgehog’s dilemma is a strong motif in Neon Genesis Evangelion and lends its name to the episode “Hedgehog’s Dilemma.”

Hedgehog’s Dilemma is the title of a song and EP by Jani Galbov (Maxis).[5]

“Hedgehog’s Dilemma” is the title of a two-part song spanning the second and third tracks of The Postman Syndrome’s release “Terraforming.”[6]

“Porcupine’s Dilemma” is the title of a poem by Stephen Wack which examines the attempt at integration of retaining distance while being involved with love and relationships.[7]

In the movie The Thomas Crown Affair, Crown compares his relationship with Banning to “porcupines mating” in a session with his psychiatrist.[8]

“The Hedgehog’s Song” is a song by The Incredible String Band, on their album “5000 Spirits or the Layers of the Onion”

“Robotman” is a song by the pillows on their album “Thank You, My Twilight“, which contains a reference with the lyrics “hedgehog’s dilemma” in English.

“The Hedgehog Song” occurs frequently in Terry Pratchett‘s discworld novels.[9]


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