Saturday, September 10, 2011
When harvesting cherries, the pickers would select only the ripest and healthiest ones. This is a normal and reasonable process. But for outsiders who can only see the selected fruit, it is hard to get the whole picture. They may wrongly conclude that most, or even all, of the fruit is in such good shape.
The term "cherry picking" is thus used to describe the tendency of people favoring information that confirms their preconceptions or hypotheses, while ignoring cases or data that may contradict that position. This "confirmation bias" may occur as selective attention while gathering information. If you believe something/someone is bad, you tend to notice negative evidences more easily or recall mainly bad memories to prove the argument. You see what you are looking for. It can also be partial and biased interpretation. People see things through lenses. Even if two individuals are presented with the same information, they can still draw different conclusions based on their preconceived opinions.
When someone is assigned or paid to advocate a particular position, like a debater or a lawyer, he or she may pick cherries intentionally. In normal circumstances, cherry picking is a common unintentional act that anybody may perform automatically without even noticing. Some scholars explain this with the limitation of our ability to handle complex information. When things get complicated, people tend to look for shortcuts, which in this case mean "availability heuristics" - the ideas that readily come to our mind or easily follow our train of thought.
Other researchers suggest that confirmation bias involves emotional motivations. In a study during the 2004 US presidential election, a group of people were shown contradictory statements by all candidates. A MRI scanner was used to monitor their brain activity when they were asked to evaluate the information. When it came to their favored candidate, the subjects' emotional centers of the brain were aroused, which didn't happen with the other statements. Our desire to believe and to defend our beliefs blinds us. We don't like to be wrong. We intuitively seek to confirm rather than falsify hypotheses because confirmation makes us feel confident and proud. To overrule a preconception, we need very powerful evidences and at the same time very strong will.
Imagine several people going to the same design meeting. Their debriefings after the meeting could be very different. The attendants may have caught only those comments that are in line with their own ideas, or put more importance to the aspects that interest them more. They may recall selectively comments from many previous meetings and insist on their own understandings. They may also interpret the bosses' verbal descriptions as utterly different material forms. With all these different hand-picked "cherries," those who didn't go the meeting would get completely lost.
Preconceptions affect judgment. We should all try to come in neutral and open-minded, and give fair evaluations to different opinions. Making the right call should be more important than proving oneself. I guess it’s easier said than done.