Forest for the Trees

Forest for the Trees

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We all know what’s meant by “can’t see the forest for the trees.” It’s a great turn of phrase reminding us not to lose scope and to keep the big picture in mind. But what are “scope” and “the big picture” anyway?

The phrase “forest for the trees” originates in forestry and, therefore, biology. Within biology, patterns of hierarchy from small picture to big picture are plainly in play. It’s not just a figment of our imaginations. Atoms make up molecules, which make up cells, which make up organs, which make up bodies, which make up populations, which make up ecologies.

There are scope issues from small picture to big picture in our everyday lives, too. In thinking about where you’ll vacation, you might take into consideration what you want, what you and your partner want, what your family wants, and if you have been invited to a family reunion, what your extended family wants. In thinking about politics, there’s what you, your community, county, state, country, and planet want. In business, there’s the costs and benefits for you, your team, your division, your company, your industry, your economy, and the global economy. In caring for your environment, there’s what protects your home, your street, your state, your country, and the globe.

With these examples, we see that there aren’t really just two levels—trees and forests. It’s not a duplex; it’s a multi-leveled complex. We teach children to deal with the complexity through songs like “The Green Grass Grows All Around.” There’s a leaf on the twig on the branch on the limb on the tree in the hole … 

Taking into account the many levels, we could as easily say, “Can’t see the limb for the branches” or “Can’t see the branch for the twigs.” Instead, our intuitions pick out just two levels, call them “trees” and “forest,” and argue that the broader of the two is the most relevant. We use the saying as a way to focus or constrain attention. It’s a way of saying, “You’re paying attention to the wrong picture. The big picture is the right picture.”

Is the bigger picture always the right perspective? Some of humanity’s most spectacular failures resulted from ignoring some crucial small-picture detail. We have sayings to warn against not seeing the trees for the forest, too, and these are also ways to focus or constrain attention, as if to say, “You’re paying attention to the wrong picture. The smaller picture is the right picture.”

Concentrate where the rubber hits the road.

A stitch in time saves nine.

The devil is in the details.


For want of a nail the shoe was lost.
For want of a shoe the horse was lost.
For want of a horse the rider was lost.
For want of a rider the battle was lost.
For want of a battle the kingdom was lost.
And all for the want of a horseshoe nail.

So it’s not so simple. Sometimes we do worse by not seeing the forest for the trees, and sometimes we do better. Sometimes we do worse by not seeing the trees for the forest, and sometimes we do better. And that’s just two levels. With more levels, it becomes much more complicated to figure out where to focus.

The problem is even more complex than that because there are levels on different questions. Take, for example a decision about whether to have children. Notice the levels on the “who, what, where, when, and why” and “how” of that question:

Who: Whose preferences matter to the decision—mine, my partner’s, my family’s, the world’s population?

What: What factors matter to the decision—money, career, love, hobbies, religion, the economy, the environment?

Where: How big an area should I factor into the decision—my own home, my community, the country, the world?

When: What time horizon matters to the decision—this week, this year, my lifetime, my child’s lifetime, and future generations?

Why: In explaining my decision, how deep into rationales should I go—anywhere from “my gut says yes” to an all-out detailed cost-benefit analysis?

How: In thinking through the details of how to implement my decision, how deep should I go—anywhere from impulse to a precise plan?

As complex as this is, no wonder we try to simplify down to forest and trees, or some simple both/and solution like “pay attention to everything” or “think globally; act locally.” Alternatively, we pull out whichever of the sayings above serve us in the moment, making a moral principle out of thinking big if we want to convince someone to think big, or a moral principle out of thinking small when we want to convince someone to think small, never really recognizing how inconsistent we are.

Not noticing or deliberately ignoring the complexity of the scale questions, we don’t negotiate through the levels as skillfully as we might. And I mean “negotiate” in both senses of the word—how we navigate decisions and negotiate conflicts between ourselves, and ambivalences within ourselves when making decisions. The scale issues are where we get horn-locked conflict and gridlock stalemates. The popularity of sayings that mean “don’t focus at this scale, focus at that scale” is evidence of how big the scale issues loom in our deliberations, conversations, debates, conflicts, fights, and battles. Our attention is limited. We want to pay attention to what’s relevant and not what’s irrelevant. We know from past experience that irrelevant big-picture factors can distract us from paying attention to crucial details, but also that, lost in the details, we can miss something crucial about the big picture. Guessing the proper scope of analysis is hard.

If there’s one kind of big-picture detail I wish we attended to more carefully, it’s the fundamental dynamics of the scale issue. We haven’t had a clear and useful systematic way to think and talk about the levels. As a result, we use phrases like “can’t see the forest for the trees” as though there are only two levels and the big one is always better. In that one respect, I wish we were better at seeing the forest for the trees. Fortunately, a systematic way to think and talk about these levels is at hand, delivered by a field of scientific research called “emergence,” a multidisciplinary approach to understanding the origins, nature, and patterns that emerge in hierarchical form both within nature and within our thinking about nature.

Originally published on Mind Readers Dictionary.