The Hedgehog’s Dilemma – Freud and “looking for one’s porcupine”

Spiky Hedgehog
(Photo by Theo Carpenter on Flickr)

An article on workplace politics in HBR mentioned something I’d not come across before: the Hedgehog’s Dilemma.

The Hedgehog’s Dilemma, or sometimes called the Porcupine’s 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 spines.

The dilemma was created by Arthur Schopenhauer in 1851, and was cited by Sigmund Freud in a 1921 essay.

How it applies to office politics in particular is drawn out by William Bouffard – a fascinating if not slightly dispiriting read. For more of a Freudian angle on it there’s a lovely essay in Cabinet. This also reveals the idea of “looking for one’s porcupine”, a phrase commonly used amongst Freud’s circle. It is explained as follows:

Whenever you have some large objective in mind, it’s always good to identify a secondary, less demanding goal on which to focus your attentions in order to detract from the anxiety associated with the search for the true grail.

(Aside: I think the apostrophe could be place before or after the “s” in “hedgehogs” and be accurate either way.)


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Man of letters & numbers; also occasionally of action. Husband to NTW. Dad of three. Friendly geek.

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