The Scorpion and the Fox

This is a post I’ve wanted to do for a while. It’s all about trust and links to the one I did about how low trust costs you money.

In my day-to-day dealings I really want to follow the advice from people like US Politician Henry L. Stimson:

the only way to make a man trustworthy is to trust him”.

Unfortunately ideology runs into the harsh realities of life and you end up having to make a few judgment calls about when and how much to trust some people. It’s a bit like the quandary my son faced when he was asked for money by a stranger at the railway station.

The Scorpion and the Fox is a fable that is used to illustrate that the behavior of some animals is so irrepressible that they will act in a certain way, no matter what the consequences, death included. There’s plenty of material on the web where the fable is used to illustrate why some people cannot be trusted.

It’s origins seem to go back as the 3rd century and involve a menagerie of scorpions, frogs, toads, turtles, snakes and people. I like the scorpion and the fox version, partly because I have difficulties with speaking frogs (it’s a Kermit thing), but mainly for the You Tube video I’ve linked to at the end.

The Scorpion and the Fox story goes along the following lines:

  • A fox and a scorpion both need to cross a river.
  • The scorpion asks the fox for a ride on its back as it cannot swim.
  • The fox refuses saying “no you’ll sting me”.
  • The scorpion replies that it wouldn’t, as it would damage the both of them.
  • The fox agrees and allows the scorpion to ride on it’s back.
  • Half way across the river the scorpion stings the fox.
  • As the poison takes effect on the fox and it starts to sink it asks the scorpion, “Why?”
  • “Why did you sting me, now we are both going to die?”
  • The scorpion replies, “I couldn’t help myself, it’s in my nature”.

Without compromising my desire to try to trust people, I think there is something in this about managing trust situations. Trust is good, but you need to reflect the nature of the ‘animal’ and the environment.

So, what’s the PONT?

  1. If you go for the ‘trust everyone to do the right thing’ approach accept that you will feel some pain from time to time.
  2. To minimise the pain, it’s worth managing your exposure to reflect the risk from the person and the environment (if it’s going to fail, better to fail small and fail cheaply)
  3. On some occasions and in some situations (scorpions & swollen rivers) this might unfortunately mean saying no.

Enjoy The Scorpion and the Fox video from Laurence Haughton

Link to the video:

About WhatsthePONT

I'm from Old South Wales and I'm interested almost everything. Narrowing it down a bit: cooperatives, social enterprises, decent public services, complexity science, The Cynefin Framework, behavioural science and a sustainable future. In 2018/19 I completed a Winston Churchill Travelling Fellowship, looking at big cooperative enterprises and social businesses in NE Spain and the USA. You can find out more here:

12 Responses

  1. fishfear

    My dad told us boys this story with one twist. The fox and scorpion were stuck on a small island in the middle of a rising river.

    It’s very true and has proven to be spot on.


  2. Romi

    For me, this story is about seeing if I can trust someone’s nature. If the fox had stopped for a moment and thought ‘yeah, the nature of a scorpion is to sting and he won’t be able to stop himself, even if he wanted to..yeah, this definitely won’t end well. Best I say sorry old chap but the answer in NO!

  3. Tony

    Is it about trust?
    Is it about something deeper?
    The nature of existence. Are we doing it or is it doing us. However much we like to think we’re in control. We cannot help being what we are.
    Can we stop destroying the planet any more than stop poverty. The scorpion can no more stop stinging, than people can stop their greed.

  4. I am now 79 years old and outlasting most of all people I know-during my life i have heard this story and not really understoud the end-but now after lifes many years I do-not only others are in that story I know from my life but also myself is there even though i have been married have children and now even a great grand dad.I am a buissness man with fair results in my life.

  5. jacker

    Expect each individual with whom you interact to be true to their nature, be it good or bad.
    If someone consistently keeps their promises (or if someone is consistently reliable) then you can expect that pattern to continue.
    If someone consistently breaks their promises (or is unreliable) then you can expect that pattern to continue, too.
    Because that’s their nature.

  6. h6w

    What I’ve never understood in this story is why the fox wants to act compassionately. (Maybe this makes me narcissistic? :-p) It’s also the nature of a fox to kill, and it could swim across on it’s own. There’s no dependency of the fox on the scorpion to escape or cross the river. If, for some reason, the fox couldn’t swim without the scorpion it would make it a reasonable dilemma, and balancing the risks would be clearer. But, as it stands, it seems to suggest simply that we shouldn’t be compassionate towards any being that could harm us.

  7. Snorri's Mom

    I always wondered if something was lost in this story, because it makes more sense to me that the scorpion would sting the fox AFTER the river crossing. Most people who use others don’t sabotage themselves. This story would be a lot more practical if the scorpion’s true nature only came through after the fox had served his purpose.

    1. Amy

      Did the scorpion know he was going to sabotage himself? That is the question. Probably not. Sometimes people we want to help for our own conscientious well being will do what they were going to do no matter the consequences. And if they don’t have to go alone then why not take whom ever they can drag down with them.

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