What Is the Hedgehog's Dilemma?

If these cute little hedgehogs get too close, would they really hurt each other?. Best dog photo/Shutterstock

On a chilly winter day, a group of hedgehogs decides to huddle together for warmth, but as they move closer, they begin to prick one another with their quills. They immediately move away from one another, only to have the frigid air drive them back together. But again, the painful pricking occurs and they step back.

This is the hedgehog’s dilemma. Often called the porcupine problem, it’s a metaphor about the challenges of human intimacy.

It was outlined by German philosopher Arthur Schopenhauer in 1851, who concludes that the hedgehogs “discovered that they would be best off by remaining at a little distance from one another.”

In other words, the hedgehogs realize that while they want to be close, the only way to avoid hurting one another is to avoid getting too close.

Freud and the Hedgehog's Dilemma

Sigmund Freud in 1926
Sigmund Freud. Wikimedia Commons

The hedgehog’s dilemma made its way into the world of psychology when Sigmund Freud (pictured right) included Schopenhauer’s tale in his 1921 work, “Group Psychology and the Analysis of the Ego,” a work that writer George Prochnik describes as “haunted by questions of intimacy.”

But years before he wrote that, Freud made what some consider to be another reference to the hedgehog’s dilemma.

In 1909, before leaving to speak in America, Freud remarked to some friends, “I am going to America to catch sight of a wild porcupine and to give some lectures.” He explained this was simply a way to deal with nerves, noting that, “It’s always good to identify a secondary, less demanding goal on which to focus your attentions in.”

But Prochnik doubts that Freud’s mentioning the porcupine — out of all American wildlife — was random. “Freud himself teaches us to doubt that any such linkage could be random,” he writes.

Prochnik suspects that the porcupine mention was actually a reference to the porcupine problem because of Freud’s mixed feelings about America, explaining that the father of psychoanalysis “yearned for the warmth ... America promised” but “felt needled ... by what proximity he did attain.”

During that visit to America, Freud did, in fact, see a porcupine — a dead one. However, before he returned to Austria, he was given a bronze porcupine by American neurologist James Jackson Putnam, which Freud kept on his desk until his death.

A century later, Prochnik, who happens to be Putnam’s great-grandson, traveled to London’s Freud Museum to see this bronze porcupine, and he discovered it to be “big, heavy and utterly non-cute ... a savage creature.”

Testing the Hedgehog's Dilemma

But are animals with quills and spines really adequate metaphors for human intimacy?

That’s what researcher Jon Maner and his colleagues wanted to determine, so they interpreted six experiments about how people respond to social rejection. They found that, following rejection, chronically anxious people become less sociable; however, people with more optimistic dispositions actually intensified their efforts for social connection.

They concluded, “Schopenhauer was known for his sour temperament and his philosophy was famous for its pessimism. So it is not surprising that he resigned his porcupines to a life spent shivering in the cold, fearing pain from other porcupines’ sharp quills. In real life, however ... for many people, the potential pain of prickly quills is trumped by the powerful need for social warmth.”

Prochnik himself realized that despite Freud’s bronze porcupine’s harsh appearance, actually touching its quills wasn’t painful. When he stroked his fingers across its back, the quills produced a melodic sound.

“Freud’s porcupine, a gift from America, looks fiercely forbidding — cries out, ‘Don’t come near,’ he writes. “But if you dare to make contact with the object, you discover that the spines metamorphosize and become musical strings.”

Photo of Freud: Wikimedia Commons